THE FIFTH PETAL
By Brunonia Barry
Publisher: Crown (2017)
Kindle edition: $13.99
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
July 17, 1692. In the last days of the Salem Witch Hunt, five women accused of being witches were hanged from a large oak tree on the outskirts of Salem. The citizens of Salem, many of them friends and neighbors, watched intently. Most believed justice had been done.
Halloween night, 1989. Three beautiful young women, descendants of the executed women, gathered at their burial place. The three planned to bless the site so that their ancestors could finally rest in peace. Before the night was over, the three women were brutally slain, falling onto the graves they’d sought to bless. There were two survivors: Rose Whelan was still at the site, babbling a strange story about a murderous banshee. Not far away, nuns from a nearby religious community found a five-year-old child, tangled up in a bramble bush, sobbing inconsolably. She was grasping a rosary so tight that it had injured her palm, leaving the imprint of a rose with five petals. She told the authorities that Rose had given it to her and saved her from a screaming monster.
Callie Cahill was the daughter of one of the victims, Olivia. All three of the young women had developed a reputation for bad behavior. Many men, including husbands and under-aged boys, fell for their charms. The crime became known accordingly as the Goddess Murders.
Rose, who had given a home to the women, was the prime suspect, but there was not enough evidence to charge her. Once a well-respected historian, she never recovered from the horrors of that fateful night. She became emotionally and mentally unstable, reduced to roaming the streets of Salem, sleeping under trees. Five-year old Callie entered the foster system, where she did not thrive. The case was never solved.
2014: Callie was working as a music therapist in a nursing home when a shocking news report on television took her by surprise. A teenage boy in Salem was dead, and Rose Whelan was the prime suspect. The nuns had told Cassie that Rose was dead. This news stirred up many emotions: happiness that her dear friend was still alive; anger that she’d been lied to; and concern for the charges against the elderly women. She dropped everything and rushed to Salem to help her friend.
Although Salem had changed with the times, the echoes of the past lingered on. Many locals believe Rose was guilty of both crimes, and should be punished. Callie, as the daughter of one of the much-maligned Goddesses, was guilty by association. Callie did find a friend and ally in the chief of police. He and his wife took her under their wing and worked to prove Rose’s innocence.
Feuds going back for generations were still active, and Callie found herself tangled in the secrets of the rich and powerful. With danger surrounding her, she didn’t know who she could trust. Her life, and that of those she cared about, were gravely imperiled before the truth came out. The final scenes are not for the faint of heart; tension is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level.
Ms. Barry has created a mesmerizing tale of Salem old and new. It’s part thriller, part psychological suspense, part historical, and all thoroughly entertaining. Life in the town, from colonial times to the present day, comes alive on the pages. The characters are sometimes bizarre, but always well-drawn and believable. The writing is lyrical and beautifully written. The “woo-woo” element is not over-the-top, and add richness to the plot.
Those who have read the author’s well-received THE LACE READER will recognize some of the characters in THE FIFTH PETAL, but the new book works well as a stand-alone. This tale of deceit, passion, history, and magic, black, white, and gray, is highly recommended.
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