By: Holly Vanderhaar
The travel fund has gotten a jump-start, though not quite in the way I was expecting. I found out about ten days ago that I’ve been awarded a grant that I applied for last fall. I asked for money to take a two-week research trip to northeastern Massachusetts, and then an additional sum to meet expenses so I can take two months off to work on a draft of a book. I explained in my application that it was virtually impossible for me, a single mother and the only breadwinner, to find the time and space to write.
I’ll be researching one of my ancestors, Hannah Martin. Her mother died when Hannah was about two years old, and her father remarried soon after, to Susanna North. Childbirth-related death was all too common in the 17th century, and children were often raised by a stepmother, or a succession of them. It’s one of the reasons wicked stepmothers figure so prominently in the fairy tales. But here’s the thing: Hannah’s stepmother really was a witch—or at least that’s what the magistrates of Salem Village believed, because Susanna Martin was one of the 20 people who died as a result of the Salem witch trials of 1692.
I’m taking my daughters with me on the research trip. I hope that seeing me actively giving of myself to a project that I’m passionate about, a project that’s meaningful, will make an impression. I hope it sparks an interest in history, the history of our family as well as the history of this country (for better or worse). And they will be nine years old when we take this trip, the same age as Betty Parris, the minister’s daughter whose unexplained fits kicked off the search for an explanation, a search that ended, for many, with the hangman’s noose.
I’m sure I’ll be talking about this project a lot in the coming months, and I hope you’ll bear with me. I realize that, on the surface, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with a 21st-century “alternative” family website. But there are themes in Susanna’s story which are, unfortunately, all too timeless. Questions like, “What happens to women who refuse to play by the rules?” and “What is the price of speaking up when you see injustice taking place around you?” and “What is the legacy that we pass down to our daughters?” are central to the book I want to write, whether it ends up a work of historical fiction or a collection of personal essays.
One of the requirements for this particular grant is a public component, and because the witch hysteria centered on girls (the chief accusers) and women (the lion’s share of the victims), against a backdrop of religious intolerance, I proposed to hold a reading of excerpts from the book to benefit a women’s charity. I also want to involve the religious community in some way. It’s a small thing, but I hope it’s a meaningful thing.