Sins as Red as Scarlet: A Devon Town in Turmoil

Written by Janet Few
Review by Sally Zigmond

This novel takes a new approach to the events surrounding the last “witch hangings” in England. Bideford, Devon was a town in turmoil. Civil war, religious intolerance, and plague, ignorance and superstition were rife, the authorities of church and state were harsh, and, as always, the destitute and vulnerable had to find a way to make ends meet. Three women were hanged due to accusations of witchcraft. Who were they, and who were their accusers? Although men were the ones who signed the papers, they relied on rumor and spurious evidence, often lies. This novel painstakingly dissects the historical archives to flesh out the facts.

To add perspective, Few sets some of the novel in an alternative 2020. Sixteen-year-old Martha, bright, independent, and indifferent to current music and fashion trends, has no friends. A school history project gives her the incentive to immerse herself into the lives of Bideford’s 17th-century residents. Studying the reasons behind their actions, Martha learns how easy it is to hate but how rewarding it is to understand each other.

I cannot fault the historical aspect of this novel. Few has delved deeply and painstakingly through the local archives to bring the facts to light for modern readers. As a historian, she only daintily steps into people’s psychology although it is a subject that fascinates 21st-century Martha. I am particularly fascinated by the possible link between a male church elder in Bideford who also appears in the records of Massachusetts’ Salem; the author only touches on this, though that would be a novel I want to read. Additionally, it’s not clear whether the novel is aimed at young adult readers or a more general audience.