Conversion, by Katherine Howe, was published in 2014 by Putnam.
It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ tests: through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t. First it’s the schools’ 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 lame. 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…
So, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this book.
On the one hand, I felt it was a decent supernatural thriller, with the added “was it supernatural or was it not?” vibe that I really like. The tension was suitably drawn out throughout the book and the Salem interludes served as a subtle way to increase that tension. It was also a good way to learn about The Crucible without actually having to read The Crucible, since Howe practically rewrites it for you in the book (and also tells you what it’s about through the author-insertion character Ms. Slater).
On the other hand, I hate how thriller books tend to be driven with cliffhanger chapters, where every chapter ends on some shocking note to entice the reader to read further. And I’m pretty sure that almost every chapter, if not every single one, ended like that. I also thought the Salem interludes were a bit tedious to get through and got more and more irrelevant towards the end. And I really thought more development could have gone into What Really Happened, and the ambiguity at the end was actually a little off putting, at least in my opinion.
Also, this book tries so hard to be a “normal high school story” and failed miserably with the use of old, tired clichés and stock characters. I also don’t like protagonists who think they’re smarter than they are.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Swearing, a student/teacher relationship.
Genre: Supernatural, Realistic, Young Adult
“But isn’t The Crucible, like, about the Salem witch trials?” Leigh asked.
“No,” Ms. Slater said. “Its setting is the Salem witch trials. Different thing entirely.”
“But aren’t all the characters all, like, real people?” Leigh pressed, looking confused.
“Nope,” Ms. Slater said.
Conversion is a decent supernatural thriller, but its generic characters, overuse of cliffhangers, and the interesting, but increasingly tedious Salem interludes, keep it from being particularly good. The student/teacher relationship was incredibly difficult to read about as all I could think about was how unhealthy it was, and Ms. Slater is basically just a stand-in for the author herself. I liked the “it might not actually be supernatural” undercurrent, but that’s about it.
You can buy this here: Conversion