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The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

The Fifth Petal is the third book by Brunonia Barry.  I read and reviewed her first book, The Lace Reader.  Her second novel was The Map of True Places, and I read that one, but apparently I did not review it for the blog.  All of Barry's novels are part of The Lace Reader series.  They all take place in Salem, Massachusetts, and the third one features characters from the first two novels as well as new characters.

The setting in Salem is important to the story, and it couldn't be set any place else.  The rich history of a city still scarred by the infamous witch hysteria of 1692-'93 plays a distinctive, heavy role in the story itself.  And the history of the witch trials and their victims is as fascinating as the story.

On Halloween a trio of teen boys harasses Rose, Salem's resident "banshee" and outcast woman, and when a god awful shrieking starts, the ring leader of the trio falls dead.  Thanks to his connections to an influential family in Salem, the modern day witch hunt demanding Rose's head for the suspicious death begins.  However, the family matriarch leading the charge has a subtle grudge against Rose that is rooted in the events surrounding the actions of a trio of beautiful young women who bewitched the town's men and were brutally murdered together nearly two decades ago.

One summer night twenty years earlier Rose, then a highly respected historian specializing in Salem witch trial history and genealogy, was found covered in the blood of the three slain women, who had also been her tenants.  That night the young women and Rose were attempting to consecrate the ground upon which their ancestors, five of Salem's accused witches, were hanged in 1692.  Only something went terribly wrong, leaving the three young women dead in the same ditch into which their ancestors' bodies had been discarded.  Rose, witness to the murders, was irrevocably psychologically traumatized, and Callie, the four year old daughter of one of the victims and also witness to the murders, was left motherless and traumatized.

The teenage boy's suspicious death dredges up the still unsolved murders of the young women and leads Chief Rafferty to re-open the case.  Meanwhile, Callie returns to town hoping to re-connect with Rose, whom she long thought dead, and to find out who killed her mother that night and why.  The parallels between the marginalization of Rose, who has lived rough and has been regularly harassed since the nights of the murders; the fear the town had of the three young women who had no qualms with wielding sexual power, and the hysteria of 1692 that targeted marginalized, outspoken women that society perceived as troublesome is an interesting study in the outcast, marginalized woman literary trope.

There are many interesting elements to this story, such as the Salem witch trial history and the way the genealogies of the murdered women connect to the mystery of the identity of their murderer.  Perhaps the most disturbing element is the way the town's growing hysteria towards Rose mirrors the hysteria that gripped the town in 1692.  The targets of both periods of collective hysteria were women living at the margins of society, women who possessed characteristics that invoked fear in the townsfolk.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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