Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe

Posted September 25, 2014 by Tara in Review /// 1 Comment

Review: Conversion by Katherine HoweConversion by Katherine Howe
Published by Penguin on 2014-07-01
Genres: Historical, Psychological, Suspense, YA, Young Adult
Pages: 432
Source: ARC from Edelweiss

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane comes a chilling mystery—Prep meets The Crucible. It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.

First it’s the school’s 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 blame. 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 . . . Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?

Over the past year I feel like I have seen many books come out that have some sort of a mysterious, contagious illness as the primary conflict, and a few with a focus on “hysteria.” However, I was disappointed to see that most of these novels had poor reviews. There is so much potential in the topic, but apparently these books are just not hitting home with readers. But something about Conversion felt different. I had high hopes that this might be an interesting, thought-provoking novel.

And you know what? It was thought provoking. Conversion is one of those books where the verdict completely hinged on the ending. Howe is building a mystery about the nature of stress on girls, high school girls in particular, and the confusion in outbreaks of hysteria. But she is also using a historical story of the Salem Witch trials as a parallel for these modern women. The whole story is questioning whether the hysteria has a medically rational root or a potentially supernatural origin. For me, the answer to this question would either be a surprise or a major disappointment.

Ultimately, I was disappointed. And it will be hard to explain here because the disappointment is so wrapped up in the answers Howe provided in the story she sets up. I seriously thought one explanation that was provided was a red herring, expecting to learn more information or another twist. Nope.

However, even though I didn’t like the answers, I found the story as a whole interesting from an academic standpoint. I’m interested in feminist issues, and Howe is definitely pointing to the feelings that girls have in those final years of high school: the stress, the perfection, the desire to do and be everything. That is all wrapped up in budding sexuality and mixed messages about how women should behave, as well. Howe offered a story with an angle that could definitely resonant with high school and college women struggling through those same expectations and struggles.


An interesting journey with a disappointing destination. But sometimes the fun of the 400 pages journey does outweigh the brief encounter with the endpoint. There was enough here to say I enjoyed the novel and would read it again — I even bought the hardcover for my shelf. For high school teachers and librarians, this would be a great pick for a school library. The Crucible is featured heavily in the story, as are Howe’s well-researched accounts of the Salem Witch Trials. There would be plenty to discuss just on those elements alone.

Were you a stressed out high school senior (or college senior)? Do you think hysteria is fascinating? Leave your thoughts!


Tara is a PhD student studying education. Her dissertation will be on digital book communities as public pedagogy (ask her about it!), though she often takes a break from all of that to read books about oppressive governments and sassy teenagers. In a former life, she was a middle school teacher and middle school librarian. In her future life, she's a professor of YA lit. In her free time, she drinks a lot of coffee while planning her next grand adventure (there's always something).

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