Published by Putnam Juvenile on July 1, 2014
It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?
Conversion combines a modern story of bizarre occurrences at an exclusive prep school alongside a recounting of the Salem Witch Trials. Colleen Rowley is the narrator of the modern story set mostly in her school in Danvers, Massachusetts. She’s in her senior year at school, she’s fighting to become valedictorian, and she has her sights set on Harvard. This is enough pressure for any teenager, but life gets even more stressful when Colleen’s classmates fall victim to a strange ailment that causes convulsions, distorted speech, loss of hair, and other odd symptoms. As more and girls are afflicted, Danvers is in an uproar, and the media descends upon the town. No one knows the cause, and the school’s administrators aren’t forthcoming with information. Many parents yank their children out of the school, but Colleen won’t risk her GPA.
The story alternates between narration by Colleen and narration by the real-life Ann Putnam during the Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600’s. I enjoyed these chapters, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what point the author was trying to make when I finished the story. Certainly, there were some parallels between the actual and fictional events, primarily involving girls exhibiting symptoms from some unknown affliction. We know today that the girls in Salem faked their symptoms, and their behavior and accusations of witchcraft resulted in the executions and imprisonments of dozens of innocent people.
Colleen seems like a very realistic depiction of a young overachiever. (Not that I could ever relate to that mentality, unfortunately.) I did question why her parents didn’t force her to pull out of her school. That seems like the logical, parental response, considering that an unknown illness is sweeping through the school, sickening more and more girls by the day. But I could absolutely believe that someone like her would take the risks in order to improve her chances of being selected by Harvard.
In Colleen’s story, the cause of the affliction is kept a mystery until the very end. Is it all a fake, similar to Salem? Is it something supernatural? Is it some kind of mass hysteria? Is it the result of some kind of environmental damage? All of these avenues are explored to some extent, and the appearance of an Erin Brockovich-type of character is quite humorous. But the ending felt like a bit of a letdown, after all of the mystery and questions that preceded it. I finished this book yesterday, and already, the ending is starting to fade from my memory even while I can vividly recall all of the events leading up to it.
Note: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.