I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem – by Maryse Condé

Only fragments are known about the real woman known as Tituba, a black enslaved woman who was put on trial for sorcery during the Salem Witch Trials. In this book, Maryse Condé adds flesh to this mysterious woman, forming a dynamic and intriguing character. The tale is told in first person, and Tituba’s voice is one that is hard to forget. Even after closing the pages of the book, her voice continues to ring and echo in my mind.

i tituba

Tituba’s story is one of almost continual heartache and suffering, in which the gallows play a prominent role. Conceived through rape and born on a plantation in Barbados, Tituba watches her mother be executed by hanging for attempting to fight off yet another rape. Tituba’s life takes her from her island home to foggy New England and back again, through the love and desertion of several men, through the homes of a number of masters, within several religious contexts, and behind the walls of a prison. Yet through it all, she continues to naively trust her fellow creatures and seeks to use all her powers to heal and care for them. Her stubborn sense of justice never falters, and she despises subservient fawning – even as a means of survival.

As compelling as I found Tituba as a character, I found this book to be troubling. In the story, Tituba has access to supernatural powers. She can summon spirits of the deceased to talk with their living relatives. Throughout most of the book, the people she is closest to and communicates with most often are in fact already dead. She has supernatural healing abilities. She can even affect the weather by means of ritual sacrifices. Throughout the book, she deals with the expectations and implications of the word “sorcery” – how it means something different to each person she encounters, even among her own people. She insists that her gifts are only for working good and healing, though she also struggles with the temptation of exacting revenge by supernatural means.

Tituba’s passionate nature, her enjoyment of sexual intimacy, and her insistence that her supernatural powers have nothing to do with the white community’s cry of “commerce with Satan” stand out in sharp relief against the Hawthorne-like puritanical background of 17th century Massachusetts. It was an interesting contrast, but one that I found troubling. For me, it was difficult to accept a book about the Salem Witch Trials in which the main character actually dabbled in what would have been considered “sorcery.” It seemed like a muddying of the memories of the many innocent woman who were maligned or destroyed during that moment of history.

The other thing that I found deeply disturbing about this book was its presentation of death as something to be aspired to. Not just as a relief to suffering, or as the natural end to the progression of life, but as a good in and of itself. Suicide and infanticide were painted as understandable (perhaps even appropriate) responses to the evil and suffering of this life. The epilogue, in which Tituba’s spirit comes back to interact with the living world made for a strange and disturbing ending to a strange and disturbing book.

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