Book Review: Crane Pond
by Richard Francis
Europa Editions, 2016
Something of the wit and lean narrative skill of Crane Pond, the new novel from Richard Francis, announces itself right at the outset, in the first lines of the first chapter, when poor Samuel Sewall, so soon to be overtaken by the madness afflicting Salem Village, is still a contented man:
Here comes Samuel Sewall, making his way to breakfast on a cold January morning in 1690, the windows filled with snow-light.
‘My dear,’ wife Hannah says, ‘You’ve brought the bed with you.’
He pats the coverlets that he spread over his ample nightshirt like a shawl and smiles. The fire is burning brightly in the grate, but their hall is large, and Boston is cold in the winter. ‘First prayer,’ he says, ‘then pie.’
It’s a sweet, companionable opening, inviting readers right away into not just the literal warmth but the more-important sanity of Sewall’s world. As few novelists before him who’ve tackled the Salem witch craze have realized, Francis sees that Sewall’s grounded nature makes him the perfect focal point from which to watch the old familiar story – the hysterical village girls, the growing stain (Francis very effectively characterizes it as an infection) of accusation and counter-accusation, the heavy-handed involvement of churchmen, the hideous outcome – unfold all over again. Sewall would of course preside as judge over that hideous outcome and would famously later apologize for it, a remarkable event about which Francis himself has written the best history its ever likely to receive, 2005’s Judge Sewall’s Apology. That he could then go to the library, get back to work, and produce a novel of such grace as Crane Pond is just about the most smile-inducing event of the current literary season – and something of a feat, the rough equivalent of Zadie Smith turning from her novel Swing Time and producing a 500-page history of modern dance.
This sane, self-deprecating version of Sam Sewall – imagine Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell, only without the mean streak and with never an important door shut in his face – anchors Crane Pond and gives it a personal and moral counterweight to the pathologies that are about the tear the normal world apart. When Sewall’s brother Stephen describes his own quotidian frame of mind, he’s outlining a world he and his brother share, one that finds the goings-on at Salem fundamentally confusing:
‘You know me, Sam. I’m practical. I like to be able to picture what’s going on in my mind’s eye. I can’t quite understand how those spectres do what they do. If the Devil told me to haunt someone I wouldn’t know where to start. Satan would soon be disappointed in me.’
Unlike histories, novels need villains, and as daring as Francis can sometimes be, neither he nor any other sane contemporary novelist chronicling the Salem craze is about to nominate Satan for the part. Instead, we need one of the aforementioned heavy-handed churchmen, and when it comes to this particular story, real-life events serve up an entire family of them: the Mathers, most especially Cotton Mather, whose real-life imperious pedantry makes him a candidate for boos and hisses too natural for Francis to pass up:
‘This was a pagan land before our fathers and grandfathers settled here,’ Mather continues, as though Sewall is a roomful of people. ‘A land of Devil worship. Outside the scope of our plantations, a pagan land it remains. And when a weak sister like Goody Osborne steps out of the light of our candles and away from the congregation of our saints, she must enter the darkness that still surrounds our settlements. It’s been waiting all along for her to stray, and indeed for any or all of us.’ He pauses to give Sewall time to understand what he knows already – that no one is exempt from the importunity of darkness.
Any historical novel about the Salem Witch Trials will perforce follow a familiar arc, just like any story about the Battle of Little Bighorn or the sinking of the Titanic; the whole measure of the thing rests in an author’s willingness to work extra hard against the lull of the familiar, to tell in a fresh way a story most of his likely readers have been hearing, with varying degrees of detail, for their entire lives. In this Crane Pond succeeds wonderfully, conveying mania without condescension and honoring decency without any suggestion of cynicism. Samuel Sewall, sleeping these centuries in a tiny crypt under Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, has been the subject of much attention – fictional and historical – since those terrible weeks when chaos broke into his life, but in Richard Francis he’s found a 21st century interpreter (Cotton Mather, still in need of one, would have used the term “Friend” and given it a double-chinned emphasis) with real smarts and sympathy. Crane Pond is a powerful evocation of the man and the crisis, a fit book to stand beside Judge Sewall’s Apology as a portrait of embattled sanity.