I have a hard time reviewing this work: on the one hand, the background of this sometimes lyrical novel provides an insight into one of the slighted players in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the 17th C, Tituba, the slave of Rev. Samuel Parris; on the other hand, although purporting to 'use' history to explore broader themes, Conde takes many liberties with actual events and other elements, which distort the narrative. To me, the best parts of this novel are the beginning and the end (the created 'history' of Tituba); also, the characterizations of Tituba, John Indian (her husband), Benjamin Cohen (a Jewish immigrant who becomes both Tituba's owner and lover), and the 'spirits' to whom Tituba talks, are vividly drawn. We see Tituba's origin in the brutal rape of her mother, Abena, by a Englishman while she is on her way to Barbados enslaved, and Abena's hanging for rebelling against another sexual assault. This has a profound effect on Tituba, and on her relations with men generally and whites in particular. As the story progresses, factual elements come into play: Tituba ends up in the service of Samuel Parris; she befriends his wife, daughter, and niece, only to be betrayed in Salem by everyone, including her faithless husband; she is found guilty in the trials (of which Conde includes an actual transcript of Tituba's deposition, but little else about the trials themselves). Conde adds fictional narrative to fill out the next stage of Tituba's life: sold to Benjamin Cohen, who frees her; her return to Barbados, where she encounters 'maroons'(free black men and women who live in hiding, plotting to overthrow the white regime) and where she will meet the same end as her mother. There are some wonderful scenes in this book, which realizes Conde's goal of reminding the reader that Tituba was a 'real person', not just a footnote.
However, there are also several elements that jar the reader out of this narrative (as the Afterward clearly illuminates). As I was reading the book, modern words such as 'feminist' appear; the section with the most incongruities was the insertion of Hester Prynne, from Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter', in Tituba's cell during the Salem trials (although Hawthorne's story took place about 50 years earlier). The two women have several conversations that are obviously meant to bring home a modern sensibility. When I realized who Tituba's fellow prisoner was, I frankly -- and literally -- groaned. But Conde doesn't stop there: in this version, Hester doesn't live to have the scarlet 'A' emblazoned on her bodice. The scenes with Hester also illustrate two running themes that seemed to be beaten into the story: men are pretty much scum, and whites -- especially Puritans -- are pretty much evil and can't be trusted (the one exception is Benjamin Cohen, part of another persecuted group). Conde has a good grasp of the failings of Puritanism (it's known that many Puritans 'dabbled' in things like palm reading, even though it was obviously 'ungodly'); however, she creates a different origin for the Salem witch trials than is historically correct, and simplfies historical characters to the point that they are almost ridiculous. By the time I got to the Afterward (one out of the four stars I gave this book is for that alone), I was pretty annoyed at the liberties Conde took with language and history. The Afterward did, however, help me understand some of what Conde intended, and her work in the context of modern Caribbean literature. An interview with Conde is included, and in it she states, "Do not take 'Tituba' too seriously, please." Conde says that the story is part "parody", and that Tituba is a "mock-epic" heroine. Although I 'get it' now, the fact that the Afterward had to explain to me what the book meant (and much of the explanantion contained there seems to contradict itself)signals that the book failed on many levels. This is especially true in the Foreward, written by Angela Davis, which seems to take the book's messages very seriously; in thanking Conde for her vision, Davis says Tituba "dies as a revolutionary", and that this work is Tituba's "revenge" for being ignored by mainstream history. While I agree that Tituba needs more attention, I think that she also deserved more than this version of her life, without the inclusion of literary characters and simplistic stereotyping of men.