2 out of 4 stars
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In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, the Puritan Church has accused a number of people of practicing witchcraft. Bridget Bishop, a village tavern owner, is among the accused. A surprising decision by a reverend at Bridget’s trial has set her free, but many Puritan villagers are still determined to make sure Bridget will be executed by hanging. Also, author Alfred Mielacher writes of a hiking trip he once took with a group of fellow hikers on the Whale Trail in the De Hoop Nature Reserve in South Africa. This novel about the Salem witch trials in colonial North America and the author’s memoir about his South African hiking trip are combined in Mielacher’s book, Back to SALEM Revealed & Whale Trail.
Back to SALEM Revealed is an alternate history work of fiction. It depicts the warmth and excitement of Bridget’s personal relationships and the vindictive schemes of church members hunting for witches. In different chapters, the author presents different perspectives. Bridget narrates in first-person, and her friend, Nycholas, does the same. The rest of the story includes other characters’ perspectives in third-person, and each perspective is clear from chapter to chapter. The third-person narrator is not the most impartial storyteller, sometimes adding commentary that leans toward a particular bias or that echoes the opinion of a character.
It is important to note that the novel is a companion to a previous book. This may be why the novel essentially jumps into the middle of a story without introducing all of the characters well. The story does not explain exactly how the characters arrived in their current situations. To fully understand and appreciate the characters, the plot, and a momentous, speculative, and rather rushed twist in this story, the reader will likely need to read the previous book, Back to SALEM, first.
In Whale Trail, the author writes about the beauty of nature and describes his and his fellow hikers’ mishaps on their trip. The author’s main goal is to relate the thoughtful conversations he and his friends have along the way. They discuss a number of topics, including disease, life expectancy and gender roles, capital punishment, religion, and overpopulation across the globe. While the conversations are engaging, the memoir does not have a central message that ties the work together. Also, the memoir ends without a full resolution. The last, unfinished conversation in the author's account leaves him in want of significant answers.
The book contains a number of errors, including errors in punctuation and some inconsistent spelling choices. The amount of those technical errors is rather moderate and does not detract too much from the work. However, in the novel, the narrator and characters frequently use words and expressions that are too modern for the year 1692. Among several other modern-day colloquialisms, the characters often say “yeah” and address men and women as “guys,” one character refers to someone’s mistress as a “girlfriend,” and the prospect of people being shocked or appalled is often referred to as “freak[ing] out.”
Moreover, because the novel and the memoir do not share a corresponding theme, it is unclear why the two works are combined in the same volume. The target audience the novel would reach is likely rather different from the audience the memoir would reach. Readers only interested in one of the works could be deterred by this combination. For the sake of clarifying the story of the witch trials and reaching the appropriate audiences, it may have made more sense to combine Back to SALEM and Back to SALEM Revealed, rather than pairing the sequel of a fictional work with an unrelated work of nonfiction.
Overall, the novel portrays an interesting way to reimagine an infamous set of events in history. Yet, the story suffers in the areas of plot and character development, and the language does not remain true to the historical setting. The memoir is a thought-provoking account that ends with a cliffhanger. Therefore, I give Back to SALEM Revealed & Whale Trail a rating of 2 out of 4 stars. I’d recommend it to readers who might enjoy an alternate history tale with a speculative twist combined with a casual memoir. However, I would not recommend this book to readers who have not read the previous novel, Back to SALEM, as a foundation.
Back to SALEM Revealed & Whale Trail
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