I really wanted to like Jodi Picoult’s Salem Falls. I’ve enjoyed other novels of hers – particularly Nineteen Minutes – and the history buff in me is a sucker for anything which promises persecution based on ignorance and fear and has Salem in the title. But Picoult fails royally with Salem Falls, primarily because of her plot device where not once but twice that girls who cry rape are, well, crying rape.
Note: Like most of Picoult’s work, the book flits back and forth between present day and events as far back as twenty years ago, detailing events whose consequences culminate in present day, with the final detail being revealed on the last page. It’s kind of like the literary equivalent of an episode of Cold Case. For the sake of clarity, I’ve summarised the plot chronologically, not how it’s revealed in the book.
So we have Jack St. Bride, a popular young teacher whom several female students have crushes on. Honourable man that he is, he doesn’t even register these crushes; they’re just impressionable young minds that he wants to fill with knowledge. One of the students, Catherine, writes her fantasies about him in her diary, and when her ultra-conservative preacher father finds it, along with the birth control pills she was using in her sexual relationship with her boyfriend, he assumes the worst and Catherine’s testimony is disregarded. Jack does an eight-month stint in jail for sexually assaulting a female. Catherine recants at the end of the book, y’know, after he’s done jail time and has a record as a sexual offender.
His time done, he makes his way to the little town of Salem Falls, New Hampshire. He starts up a relationship with (the very much adult) Addie Peabody, but of course it doesn’t take long for him to attract the attention of other members of the female population, particularly teenage girls. Specifically Gillian, daughter of the town’s richest man. Gillian’s a Wiccan, see, except she ignores the advice of her fellow-Wiccans (ie, her doppelganger friends) that magic should be used for good, and instead uses it to get back at the people who laugh at her and make Jack fall in love with her. It doesn’t take long for Gillian to accuse Jack of rape, except what actually happened is that Gillian and her friends were practicing spells, high as kites, when Jack stumbles upon them, drunk. Gillian comes onto him, and when Jack turns her down flat, Gillian cries rape.
So here we have a man who not once, but twice has been the victim of infatuated teenage girls and paid the price for their misplaced devotion – first through a series of misunderstandings with Catherine, then with a manipulative Gillian who cried rape when she was turned down. I’m pretty sure Picoult isn’t actually saying, hey, all rape allegations are just screwed-up teenage girls crying rape, but the book definitely perpetuates that myth.
(Also, has anyone read the book who’s also familiar with the US legal system? Because if I apply Picoult’s logic to the Australian legal system, the state would be lucky to get a trial, let alone a conviction, on the evidence they had in both cases. Come to think of it, My Sister’s Keeper kind of fails there, too.)
Wait, it gets even classier. In the final scene of the book, it turns out that Gillian is in a seemingly consensual sexual relationship with her father. I say ‘seemingly consensual’ because it’s hard to gauge as the whole scene takes less than a page; she goes into his room and there’s references made to ‘an old, old dance’ and ‘sealing the deal once more’. It’s left up to the reader to decide how consensual it is. Has Gillian been so damaged that she cried rape with Jack as a cry for help? Is she just an out-and-out evil, manipulative tramp? Somewhere in between? We don’t know, because Picoult thinks it’s a good idea to let the reader decide her motives. Uh, no. Sometimes, it’s a good plot device – but not when we’re talking about crying rape and father-daughter incestuous relationships.
The shame of it is that Salem Falls could have been a thought-provoking read about people’s tendency to judge out of fear and ignorance. Girl cries rape and naturally the new guy in town with the criminal record had to have done it, because men who are devoted fathers and pillars of the community don’t commit crimes, let alone such heinous ones. Or maybe it could have looked at the idea that instead of Jack being the victim of Catherine and Gillian’s actions, he was indirectly the victim of their fathers’ unhealthy attitudes towards their daughters, which in turn screwed with their way of interacting with men. Instead, Picoult not only relies on a seriously bad trope, but ends it with an even worse one that should never be treated lightly, let alone as a throwaway ‘Ohmygod! It was him all along!’ moment.