What better place for inspiration to strike than at your local Midas? So it was for bestselling author Katherine Howe. In the autumn of 2012, as she was waiting for her car’s broken taillight to be fixed, half-listening to the local news on the waiting room’s television, she heard something that caught her attention. The anchor reported that doctors had finally concluded what really happened to the girls of Le Roy, New York.
That previous spring, sixteen high school classmates in upstate New York came down with sudden and strange symptoms, including uncontrollable tics, hair loss, and disordered speech. The story captured the attention of local media, and soon the small town had made national and international news. Experts from across the country came to investigate and to offer their own assessments—the girls were diagnosed with everything from PANDAs to Tourette’s. The HPV vaccine was to blame. Or maybe it was the polluted groundwater.
Meanwhile, as these girls were suffering through a very strange and very public ordeal, Katherine was just miles away, teaching The Crucible to a group of college students in her sophomore historical fiction seminar. As Katherine tells us, she was “eager to discuss the parallels between the ‘afflicted girls’ at Salem and these teenagers that lived so close. To my surprise, my students didn’t see a parallel. After all, the girls in the past were just crazy, whereas the girls in Le Roy had something really wrong with them. The more I watched the story unfold, however, the more struck I was by the disjuncture between what the Le Roy girls thought about their own experience, and what the assorted ‘experts’ brought in to comment on their situation had to say. I reflected at length about the Salem girls, and specifically about Ann Putnam, who was at the very center of the accusations in the Salem panic, who really did issue an apology (which is reproduced verbatim in this story) and who had been effectively written out of the most popular fictional account of that period in American history, The Crucible. In the past, as in the p
resent, the experts had one story to tell about this unique and frightening experience, while the girls, I suspected, had an experience all their own, that no one but them could fully understand.”
Conversion is very much a work of fiction, a novel set in a contemporary all-girls school in Danvers, Massachusetts, as well as in seventeenth-century Salem Village, but the story is grounded in exhaustive research and true-life details. What Katherine has created by weaving together these two narratives is an exciting and unsettling mystery. Working alongside Katherine, I marveled as she wrote, in a seemingly effortless way, a story that is both incredibly fun and a very thoughtful look at the pressures that modern-day high schoolers are under.
In the end, the girls of Le Roy were diagnosed with Conversion disorder, a condition in which the body “converts” psychological stress into physical symptoms. Is that what happened to the girls during the Salem panic? To our young heroines in modern-day Danvers? Are they truly ill? Crazy? Faking it? Thank goodness for the long wait at Midas—it’s given us a perfect, chilling summer read.