Gallows Hill: An Interview with Author Lois Ruby

Panic spreads as quickly as the rumors in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 when members of the community are accused of witchcraft Puritan Patience and Quaker Thomas are caught up in this climate of fear, but both begin to question their faiths and fight to protect their families.

Gallows Hill takes a realistic, psychologically astute approach to the story of the Salem Witch Trials. Author Lois Ruby joins us today to discuss her creative decisions, research process, and more! Read to the end to download the free discussion guide.

How do you choose the topics for your novels?

Curiosity is both my uplift and my downfall. I want to know about everything, especially those things that are impossible to explain. I’m driven to look for answers—while believing that the question is far more important than the answer.

When I was in school, I thought history was not only dead, but deadly dull, because it seemed that we only learned about Important Dates and Wars and Who Was King of Where. Boring! As I got older, I began to think of history as people who’d had families, conflicts, decisions, tragedies and failures, triumphs and victories, pets and favorite foods and dreams and secrets. Then history burst into life for me. In each of the times and places I’ve featured in my novels, I found the people who interested me, and their stories filled my head and heart. I look for ordinary kids living in extraordinary times, and I let their stories flow until I feel that I am alive and right there, among them.

How did you research the historical setting and events of Gallows Hill?

I spent years reading books and watching historical reenactment videos. My husband and I also made a fascinating trip to Salem. I visited all the genuine historical sites that have been salvaged, including the well-preserved home of accused witch Rebecca Nurse, to get the flavor of the sights and sounds, textures and smells of Salem. Of course, Salem today capitalizes on its history with corny tourist attractions, ice cream parlors, T-shirt shops, stores selling full witch regalia, and people wandering the streets in costume. So, I couldn’t rely on that silliness for my depiction of seventeenth-century Salem. Instead, countless books and articles, plus those original trial transcripts that have survived, helped me imagine the community as it was back then.

How on earth did something as outrageous as the Salem witch trials happen in the first place?

There are so many speculations. Possible factors include individual hallucinations, mass hysteria, fungus poisoning, adolescent rebellion, self-inflicted wounds, post-traumatic stress, and a sheer craving for attention in a restrictive society where young people had so little freedom. Each theory has its merits, though the fungus one has been debunked. Yet no single explanation answers the How and Why completely. We shall never know, and that’s why Salem continues to capture our imagination centuries later.

Was Salem the only place with witch trials and hangings in the late seventeenth century?

No, there were other towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—notably Andover—that had a flurry of afflictions and accusations during that period. And going back centuries, communities across Europe grappled with allegedly evil-doing witches, even burning some at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. But none of those incidents was on the scale of what happened in Salem between January and October of 1692. And by the way, although eighteen people were convicted and hanged in Salem, and one accused of witchcraft was executed by laying heavy stones on his body, nobody in New England was actually burned as a witch.

Do you believe in witches?

I am a pragmatic person who has trouble accepting anything I can’t experience with my own five senses. So, in researching this book, I had to suspend disbelief and try to understand how and why the people of 1692 Salem could so unquestioningly believe in witchcraft. I have, however, met many Wiccans, sometimes called “good witches,” and I’ve studied their rituals, such as the ancient Celtic wedding tradition of handfasting. I am assured that Wiccans do not cast evil spells or worship the devil. Rather, they are peace-loving, rational pagans at one with nature. But it does amuse me that one Wiccan woman I know flashes a bumper sticker of a witch that says, My other car is a broom.

What do you hope readers will take away from Gallows Hill?

I hope readers will gape in shock—and perhaps some recognition—at how easily a person can be led astray and a society can be disturbed, nearly destroyed, by wrong assumptions and mob mentality. Today we might call those assumptions conspiracy theories. I hope the story will drive home for readers that each of us must think things through for ourselves and not just follow what everyone else is doing. Finally, I hope readers will cherish how valuable each individual life is and how closely we are tied one to another.

Praise for Gallows Hill

“Readers interested in the history of Salem will enjoy Ruby’s faithful accounting.”—Booklist

“Effective historical fiction revisiting a fascinating and complicated time in American history.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Through the eyes of her flawed but persevering fictional characters, Lois Ruby paints a vivid picture of prejudice, suspicion, and the cruelty that results from them.”—Mary Downing Hahn, author of What We Saw

Free Educator Resources

Download this free discussion guide to encourage critical analysis and conversation.

Connect with Lois

Lois Ruby is a former librarian and the author of twenty-two books for young readers. She divides her time among family, community social action, research, writing, and visiting schools to energize young people about the ideas in books and the joys of reading. Lois lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and shares her life with her psychologist husband, Dr. Tom Ruby, as well as their three sons and daughters-in-law and seven amazing grandchildren, who are scattered around the country.

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