Frightful Friday is a weekly meme in which I feature a particularly scary or chilling book that I’ve read that week.
This week’s featured title is Conversion by Katerine Howe:
- Age Range: 12 and up
- Hardcover: 432 pages
- Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (July 1, 2014)
- ISBN: 9780399167775
- Source: Library copy
The seniors at St. Joan’s Academy, a private school in Danvers, Massachusetts, are wrapped up in the stress of their final year of school prior to graduation. The students are expected to take this pressure all in stride. Then one day the school’s most popular girl, Clara Rutherford, breaks out into uncontrollable ticks in the middle of class. Soon, other girls begin exhibiting strange symptoms, including hair loss, seizures, and violent coughing fits. With reason, students, their parents, and faculty are all on edge. What is causing these unusual, abrupt symptoms? Could it be something in the environment at the school poisoning them? Or perhaps, is it somehow tied to the town’s dark history?
Colleen Rowley is one of the students immersed in this chaos. The stress of graduation has overcome her as well. Working on an extra credit assignment on The Crucible, she uncovers what many others have not: Danvers is not the original name of this small Massachusetts town. Originally known as Salem Village, Danvers has a history of unexplained epidemics involving young women. Is it possible this modern epidemic is somehow related to that of the past?
Using parallel narratives, Howe gets inside the minds of two young girls, separated by three centuries of history. Ann Putnam was a young woman fully involved in the Salem witch trials. It was she who accused her neighbors of witchcraft. Today, Colleen Rowley holds powerful information about the town’s past and how it could be related to what is transpiring now.
With a substitute teacher serving as her mentor, Colleen’s research into The Crucible and the dark history of Danvers provides valuable evidence about the power of those in charge:
There are parts of the story that are overlooked . Maybe because they don’t fit with what the people in charge have to say…look beyond the dominate narrative…you can rewrite the narrative if you ask the right questions.
This knowledge forces Colleen to take a different approach to uncovering what is happening to her classmates. As she continues her research, the truth about the past becomes more apparent, simultaneous with revelations as to what is happening in her town today.
Howe forces readers to examine the power of manipulation, how the actions or word of one individual can shape the actions of an entire town. Conversion touches on the pressures society forces upon young girls, both today and centuries in past. We demand that they not only get good grades and move on to prestigious colleges, but to maintain an appearance of control in the midst of one of the most challenging phases in their lives. The pressure to be perfect is tremendous and therefore it shouldn’t be out of the realm of belief for consequences and side effects of this stress to be manifested physically.
Conversion has been compared to Megan Abbott’s The Fever. I admit, their similarities put me off at first. I Having read Abbott’s book first, I didn’t think I could continue reading this one. How is it possible for two books, published just weeks apart, have such a similar storyline? Simple! Both books are loosely based on true events. In 2012, eighteen girls in Le Roy, NY began exhibiting strange symptoms, including verbal and physical tics. Ultimately, their symptoms were diagnosed as conversion syndrome, a disorder in which emotional stress is so strong that it begins to manifest into physical symptoms. Both Megan Abbott and Katherine Howe are from New York, so it is guaranteed that both women read about this unusual case. I don’t know about you, but if I was a writer an read about this case, I’d want to write about it two.
All this said, while Abbott and Howe both loosely base their novels on one actual event, there are enough differences to set them apart as unique novels. Each deserve their own attention and praise for they are truly outstanding and unique novels.
Going in, I didn’t realize Conversion was a young adult novel. Both teens and adults are certain to enjoy this novel, each taking away something wholly different. For teens, it is the acknowledgement that we know they are under a tremendous amount of stress, and the importance of verbalizing their difficulties before they take a physical toll. For adults, it serves as a reminder that we are often responsible for exacerbating an already stressful time in our teens lives, often forgetting our own experiences in lieu of pushing our children to achieve perfection.
Bottom line, Conversion is a novel that I wholly enjoyed. I couldn’t put it down. I don’t know if it was due to the setting, or the fact that my own teen son is starting high school this year. Whatever the reason, I highly, highly recommend this novel.