Beyond the Burning Time Discussion Guide
When reading this book about the frightening Salem witch trials, engage students with these activities and talking points.
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Teacher
Beyond the Burning Time is a well-researched, vivid account of a dark, frightening period in American history, the Salem witch trials. The economic and political issues of the time as well as the greed, jealousy, and superstition of various accusers come alive in Lasky's retelling of the story from the perspective of twelve-year-old Mary Chase. This third person point of view allows Lasky to present much more about the undercurrents throughout Salem Village than Mary herself would ever know or see or understand: for example, Mary Warren's desire for her master, John Proctor; the relationship between Captain Coatsworth and the widow tavern keeper; and the voyeurism of Gilly, the hired man. As the epilogue reveals, Mary herself is supposedly writing the account when she is ninety-nine. This frame for the novel, the ending is the beginning, means that an older, wiser Mary is telling the story.
This historical novel can be read by middle school readers as a story of a young girl who triumphs over evil forces, a story of survival and escape. However, the complexity of the language — well-crafted images, extended metaphors, symbolism, excerpts from actual sermons, and historically accurate discussions of the political sources of the problem — make this novel also appropriate for older readers, especially students in American studies classes, where they are studying both the history and literature of the Colonial period. In an author's note, Lasky separates the history from the fiction. She also provides an excellent list of sources for studying this brief but fascinating era.
Lasky develops her characters fully, whether they are major characters or minor ones. In a few paragraphs she skillfully brings to life such characters as William Phips, the new governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, by showing his preference for soldiering rather than governing, his callousness in putting the women in chains, his vulgarity and impiety. Despite the horror of the times, Lasky does not sensationalize events or people. Hers is a thoughtful, sensitive, accurate portrayal that deserves its recognition as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.
The novel chronicles the ten long months of hysteria that gripped Salem and the surrounding Massachusetts towns from January 1692 to October of that same year. Twelve-year-old Mary Chase and her widowed mother, Virginia, farm the land while Caleb, Mary's brother, is an apprentice to a shipbuilder. Their lives are changed by a group of young girls who begin accusing various women of making them sick or giving them fits or filling animals. The girls become the center of attention at the meetinghouse when they fall to the floor choking themselves or see visions hovering in the corner or point out a specific woman as a witch. The girls begin by naming an old, rather eccentric woman but soon begin naming women well known for their goodness. Eventually they go too far by "crying out" against the wife of Reverend Hale, one of the most aggressive of the prosecutors, but not before many lives are destroyed.
The women who are cried out have no defense against such accusations other than to proclaim their innocence. The prosecutors devise bizarre "tests" to determine whether or not they are witches; many women confessed because a confession sometimes brought their release. However, when Virginia Chase is accused, tried, and sentenced to hang, she refuse to confess, saying that she will never sell her soul to save her feet, the prison chains having cut off circulation and caused severe swelling. Their farm and personal effects are confiscated, as the property of all the convicted has been.
Fearing Mary will be accused soon, Caleb takes her to Boston, where she works in a tavern kitchen. But Boston is where Gallows Hill is located, where the trials are held, where the prison is, and where the new governor, William Phips, is disinterested in bringing an end to the terror.
Caleb and Mary develop a rescue plan with Captain Coatsworth, who has seen Mary at the tavern and takes pity on her. The plan, however, cannot be carried out because Virginia has been moved into the country and imprisoned in a pigsty. By the time Mary and Caleb get there, she is already on her way to the gallows. They scare the wagon driver with a dead sheep's head and much blood. The three of them escape to the river, where the Captain awaits in his ship. Virginia bravely survives the amputation of one foot and eventually marries the Captain in Jamaica, where they have settled. The next eighty-seven years are capsulized in a short epilogue.
Thinking About the Book
- Which character is the most likable? Why? Which character is least likable? Why?
- Mary Chase can read, but her mother believes it is best they keep it a secret because the accusers may somehow use her ability to indict her. In what other ways does Mary Chase differ from other young girls of her time?
- The dark side of human nature is indeed scary. However, even in these times, there are people who act for the good of others. Who are these characters, and how do their actions help others?
- The reasons for the Salem witch accusations and subsequent trials were complex and no doubt different for different people involved. For some, it was superstition or jealousy; for others the reasons lay in greed, boredom, or self-importance. For some characters, it was not a single reason. In small groups, have students discuss the motivations of the people involved and the events that support their views. Do other reasons emerge from their discussion?
- Lasky's descriptions are rich with figurative language. Virginia Chase refers to Mary's "minnow of a golden eyebrow" (p.16); Gilly's face reminded Mary of a "dried apple. Round and crinkled, it seemed to have folded in on itself…" (p.23). Have students find other examples that can be placed in their individual writing journals or on a class bulletin board.
- Have students, either in small groups or as a whole class project, publish a newspaper that might have been written about the stories and events of the Salem witch trials.
- Using both the novel and the author's note at the end that contains historical references, create a time line of the events and the locations of the action.
- Have students read another fictional or nonfictional account of this historical period. For example, for older readers, Beyond the Burning Time makes a good accompaniment to Arthur Miller's drama The Crucible.
- These events took place in a different time, but the hysteria and betrayal in which the Salem witch trials were embedded are not unique to that period. Ask students to think of modern events that have some of the characteristics of the accusations and trials.
- The flavor of Colonial life is interwoven throughout the novel. Some students may enjoy looking more closely at sections that feature shipbuilding, farming, religious practices, or other aspects of daily living they find unique to the Colonial experience.
About Kathryn Lasky
Kathryn Lasky calls herself a compulsive story maker, like she was as a child. At ten years old, she decided she might be a writer when her mother commented on her metaphoric use of language to describe the gathering clouds one night as "a sheepback sky." After college, she wrote for magazines and was teaching when her first novel was published.
She likes writing historical fiction, although history as a school subject usually bored her because of the way nonfiction is written. "But then," she says, "I realized that you can make the characters in nonfiction as fascinating as those in fiction." Living in Boston, Lasky is surrounded by history, and she found the Salem witch trials fascinating as a historical event. But it was one of those writers' "what if" moments that drew her into that historical period: "One day I found myself wondering what it would have been like if your mother had been arrested for being a witch and had been condemned to death." That was the beginning point for Beyond the Burning Time, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.
Doing research for a historical novel is fun for Lasky. She likes collecting the bits and pieces from resource books, historians, and librarians, and then connecting the information to characters that adolescents will care about. And Lasky cares about adolescents as her audience. She says, "Adolescence is a time for pain and anxiety, and stories come out of that tension. It's a time when kids are trying to define themselves. I seem to connect with that feeling pretty well."