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July 1999
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Road To Endor


Road To Endor, Esther Barstow Hammand, Farrar & Rinehart, 1940


This novel is, I suppose, long out of print although I wouldn't be surprised if one were able to find it in libraries and perhaps in the occasional used book store. It is the fate of all but a few novels to quietly disappear unless they fit into one of the categories that appeal to collectors.

It is a pity, really. There are works that are printed and reprinted, some because they are assigned reading in the universities, some because they are superlative, and some by the chance of popular favor. Most novels are not. They are printed; people read them; people enjoy them. Their time passes and they are forgotten. The next generation of novels is written and consumed in turn. And yet the forgotten works are as good as they ever were and would offer as much pleasure to new readers as they did to those who read them when they appeared.

Perhaps Ms. Hammond has enthusiasts who dote on her. Perhaps this novel is included by scholars in their list of scholarly resources. And perhaps not. I have no notion. It chances that I have read this book recently and enjoyed it.

The book is a biography in novel form of Samuel Parris, the minister in Salem Village during the witchcraft trials. Tituba was his slave. The majority of the book is an account of his life prior to becoming the minister at Salem Village; the account of the trials occupies the last few chapters and is sparse in its details of the register of who was hung and who was tried.

I have no idea of how much of the novel is historically accurate and how much is invention. The novel proper is preceded by an author's note which is not entirely reassuring as to the accuracy of the work within. It reads:

"This book is fiction. Although I have delved into many old records and used all reasonable care to dig up whatever historical facts are available, the research has been hampered by unusual difficulties. It is, of course, a matter of common knowledge that the Devil stole the Church Book from the Reverend Samuel Parris, Minister of Salem Village; and though it was afterwards mysteriously returned, the horrid scent of brimstone still lurks in its crumbling pages. I myself have discovered now and again a mutilated page or an erasure or a dim and smudgy fingerprint which might without question be traced to the Father of Lies. In the face of such difficulties this story has been written, and the indulgence of the reader is craved for whatever flaws, omissions or inaccuracies there might be."
The outlines of his life are these: His father, Thomas Parris, was a merchant; his mother, Anne Parris, had married below her station. Both were good puritans. Samuel Parris was born in 1653 when Cromwell became Lord Protector. When he was seven his father went to Barbados to manage a plantation that Thomas Parris had inherited from his brother. Anne Parris and the children stayed behind; the family was never reunited. She died in 1665 in one of the outbreaks of the black death.

Andrew Marvell, who was a friend of Anne Parris, placed Samuel in Morton's Academy just outside London. Samuel hoped to go on to become a preacher which had been his mother's great ambition for him. Upon his graduation, however, his father (at a great remove) arranged for him to become an apprentice to a London merchant. When he completed his apprenticeship in 1671 he went to the new world to Boston to enroll in Harvard University. Andrew Marvell arranged this with Samuel's father; conveniently Samuel's Aunt Susanna lived there and was married to John Oxenbridge who was a minister in Boston.

Samuel spent two years at Harvard; he then got a message from his father bidding him to come to Barbados. He arrived at Barbados to discover his father freshly dead. He took over the management of the plantation which he operated for seven years before returning to Boston.

His return is a curious story which may be part fiction. In 1666 during the great fire of London it chanced that he saved the lives of a woman and her daughter Elizabeth. He and Elizabeth were much taken with each other and Samuel dreamed of her as his true love. They did not maintain contact though. They met again in Boston only now she was the wife of a much older man who brought her to Boston. They confessed their love for each other but did not consumate it. When Samuel learned of the death of Elizabeth's husband he returned from Barbados to Boston and married her in 1680.

He brought to Boston three slaves, two by intent and one by a gift in malice. The two by intent were Tituba and John Indian. The third was the boy, Corythus. The boy was the son of a slave named Sheba. Samuel slept with her one night and then, in disgust with his sin, sold her to a fellow planter named Webb. It chanced that Samuel got her with child that night. Webb took Sheba as his mistress. He did not fancy rearing Samuel's bastard and gifted him onto Samuel upon Samuel's return to Boston. The name was chosen as a barb; Corythus was the of Paris by Oenone whom he deserted for Helen. In the novel, although perhaps not in real life, Samuel was recurringly visited by guilt over the matter; it was something that he could not publicly confess.

Back in Boston he set up as a merchant speculator. His heart, however, was in the ministry. When he got the chance to preach he did. He was a powerful preacher and in 1689 he became the minister at Salem Village. The next three years were the years of the witchcraft trials. That tale has been widely told and need not be recounted here.

The novel tells its story well enough. In their way, the people of the time are strangers to us; their motives and beliefs are somewhat alien. We do not, in these latter days, hang witches and we do not readily understand how it was obvious that there were witches and that it was a right and proper thing to do to hang them. No doubt in future ages people will look back on our times and shake their heads at our own follies. It is a strength of the work that within it the beliefs of the time and the motives of the actors seem natural.

I suppose that it would make a good movie. For that matter it may have been made into a movie. The Great Fire would give the special effects boys something to do and the seduction of Parris by Sheba would provide the obligatory steamy scenes. The witchcraft madness would provide more than enough material for simplistic politically correct morals. Casting Hugh Grant as Samuel Parris would be in appropriately poor taste and nicely ironic.

In short it is one of many good books, one worth reading if it should chance to come your way.


This page was created June 29, 1999
and was last updated November 13, 2002.
It was moved February 5, 2010

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