Study Guide

A Break With Charity Analysis

By Ann Rinaldi

  • Tone

    Somber, Nostalgic

    Oh Susanna, you sure do have a sad story to tell. And this means that our girl often sounds pretty somber when she's telling her tale. We can't blame her, though—after all, Susanna has been through a lot and her tone reminds us that most of her story isn't about cotton candy and unicorns.

    Check out Susanna's tone when she's sitting in the meetinghouse in 1706. She's waiting for Ann Putnam to come and apologize, and boy does Susanna have some serious sadness in her voice when she's remembering her mama:

    Sometimes I miss her so much! I missed her so when I was married. And there are times when I ache for her as I look on my children's faces. But today, when I came into this place, it was more than aching for her or missing her. It was as if her presence was here with me, all around me. And I cried.

    This was Mama's meetinghouse, the place she loved so until that fateful day when she stood by Sarah Cloyce as the others shunned Sarah and called Mama a friend of witches. She never came back here after that day. (Prologue.6-7)

    Susanna sure is solemn when she thinks about her mom. She not only tells us that she misses her mama big time, but we can hear it in her voice too. She's not full of happiness to be back in her old church, and instead Susanna seems super grave.

    But even though a lot of bad stuff went down in Salem back in 1692, Susanna is still nostalgic for the old days, especially for her mom. And even though she's ready to ball her eyes out, she's also surrounded by memories in the meetinghouse, and lucky for Susanna some of them are good. Her tone lets us know that she's nostalgic about the past and sad about it all at once.

  • Genre

    Young Adult Literature; Historical Fiction; Tragedy

    When our narrator is a teenage girl, we know we're reading young adult lit. Our storyteller, Susanna English, is fourteen years old and her teen years are filled with some serious drama. In fact, most of the time Susanna has to act like a full-grown woman herself. But just because this book is written with teens in mind doesn't mean adults won't hop on board, too.

    So what makes folks want to hop on the Break with Charity train? Well the history, of course. This book takes us through the Salem Witch Trials, which really took place back in 1692. It was a rough year for Salem, and we get to see it all through Susanna's eyes. And get this: even Susanna is a real historical person. With all these historical facts, we've definitely got a historical fiction on our hands here.

    So we've got a book about some big historical events, but the real question is: how do these witch trials turn out? Sadly for the so-called witches, lots of hangings are afoot. And that puts this novel in the tragedy genre. It's not a classical old-school tragedy because our main character stays alive, but a bunch of characters die, and there's just sadness all over the place in Salem.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    When we look at A Break with Charity, we see tons of charitable people who are super kind (what's up Joseph Putnam), but we also see tons of folks who are pretty mean (we're looking at you, afflicted girls). So this title gives us a hint right off the bat that kindness is going to be super important in this text.

    But the idea of breaking charity with someone goes even deeper. You see, to break charity means to betray or harm someone. And there are tons of times when betrayals go down during the Salem witch trials.

    Check out Susanna and Johnathan's visit to Mary Warren when she's awaiting trial at Ingersoll's Ordinary. Mary was one of the supposedly possessed girls and now she's decided to tell the judges the truth. And this means that Mary has something to say about the posse of afflicted gals:

    "They did break charity with me," she said softly. "So now I break charity with them." (13.19)

    Whoa—there's some major betrayal going on here. Basically, Mary feels like the lying girls betrayed her by naming her crush as a witch, so now she wants to betray them right back by getting them in trouble. She doesn't want to be loyal to the pack anymore; she's ready to break free.

    Mary isn't the only one in this book who experiences a break with charity. Who else do you think title refers to?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Break out the tissues, Shmoopers, because this ending is a sad one. For starters, by the end of the book nineteen people in Salem have been hanged for witchcraft and, of course, none of them were actually witches, so that means all nineteen individuals were innocent. That's enough to make us feel like this ending is totally tragic.

    But the sad stuff doesn't stop there. To top it all off, Mama English dies and Susanna has a hard time moving on from Salem's murky past.

    But mixed in with all this sadness, we've got some happy bits, too. Just take a look at how Susanna and Johnathan end up hitched and happy as can be. Plus now they have two kiddos, and Joseph and Elizabeth seem pretty cheerful, too. With all these marriages and babies, life is looking up in Salem.

    There's one more thing that has Salem looking like a happier place: Ann Putnam has asked for forgiveness from the whole town. And the real shocker is that Susanna forgives her old rival. Yep—Susanna might always struggle with her past, but in the end she lets one piece go when she forgives Ann.

    So what do you think? Is this ending a happy one or a sad one?

  • Setting

    Salem, Massachusetts

    If you're on the hunt for a creepy little town back in 1692, we've got just the place for you: Salem, Massachusetts.

    Here's the thing: in many ways, Salem is just another colonial town. You've got your shops selling tallow and bed warmers; you've got your rich merchants and your apprentices who work at the wharf. Throw in a few horses, a parsonage, a meetinghouse (a.k.a. a church), and you've got a pretty sweet picture of a colonial village.

    And get this: all these town details are super accurate. Salem was a real town in colonial Massachusetts, Mrs. English really had a shop there, and there was even a tavern called Ingersoll's Ordinary where the afflicted girls would act possessed, just like in the book. No one knows exactly what made the afflicted girls go into fits and accuse witches, but historians do know what the town of Salem was like. And in A Break with Charity, Rinaldi sticks us in a time machine with a seriously accurate setting.

    Okay, so the colonial town is super historical and super creepy. But there's just something extra that makes Salem a wee bit spooky. Oh right, it's those pesky witch trials, complete with trees for hanging so-called witches. So it's no surprise that when Susanna is out at night in her hometown, she's pretty freaked out by her surroundings:

    Even the night breezes seemed fraught with foreboding. The landscape all around Salem had become melancholy. And as Joseph's mare pulled the wagon swiftly over familiar paths, I felt as if we were all incarnated out of that melancholy, as if we were all part of it. (17.62)

    Yikes, this is giving us the heebie-jeebies. And this town isn't just spooky, it's sad too. Did you notice how Susanna describes the "melancholy"? She says it's "as if we were all part of it," which has us thinking that everything in this town is dark and brooding these days.

    And for more spooky deets on what cell-phone-less times were like in Salem back in 1692, swing on over to our Salem witch trials guide.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Get ready for a page-turner, because this book is filled with suspense and that makes it a quick read. Sure the story is brimming with history, but it's the fun kind of history—you know, the kind where you're learning all about the past but it's actually super exciting. We promise.

    Plus, if you need a refresher on your colonial times, Shmoop is here to deliver. Just check out our easy breezy guide to the Salem Witch Trials and this book shouldn't give you any trouble at all.

  • Writing Style

    Detailed, Candid

    When it comes to telling her tale, Susanna wants to give us the details and tell it like it is—she doesn't want us guessing about anything at all, and that means serving up every little tidbit about her life in 1692. So if you're hoping to find out what Susanna and her family ate for dinner, then you're in luck because she's bound to tell you. Or if you're wondering what shade of blue the sky is on a particular day, Susanna wants to be frank about that info, too.

    Take a look at how Susanna recalls saying goodbye to her family before they separate between Boston and Salem:

    I do not much ponder the farewell. But it still comes to the front of my mind at night when I hear owls calling to each other in the loneliness. Or when I catch the scent of the marshes. When that happens, I can still feel Mama's or Mary's arms around me, hear Mary's sobs as we drew apart, hear Father's voice break as it did when he tried to conceal his painful feelings. (17.64)

    Susanna really has a knack for details, right? She doesn't just tell us that she said ta-ta to her family—nope, she gives us the full rundown, including what she smelled that day (oh those stinky marshes). In fact, her style is so detailed and straightforward that it makes it super easy to visualize the scene she's given us, and that's pretty great.

  • Books

    Shmooopers, beware: reading is dangerous. Or at least that's what the folks in Salem think. When it comes to books, the Puritans run a tight ship—you're allowed to read the Bible, and maybe some religiousy stuff like sermons, but steer clear of the library folks, because those other books are strictly off-limits.

    And if there's one book that's really off-limits, it's the Devil's book. You see, one of the accusations the afflicted girls make is that so-called witches have signed their name in the Devil's book, which is pretty serious stuff. But things get even stranger when Mary Warren tells Susanna that one of her old chums claims to have signed the evil dude's book herself:

    "Abigail Hobbs?" I could not believe it.

    "Oh yes. She's confessed to being a witch. And she's glad of it, too. Never have I seen one so glad. She came prancing up here this morning to see me. She was downstairs telling the patrons that she signed the Devil's book." (13.22-23)

    Yep, Abigail Hobbs says she's got an in with the Devil and she likes it. Here's the skinny on Abigail: she likes to be a wee bit dangerous. Okay… more like being seriously super dangerous. And saying that she signed the Devil's book is just about as dangerous as it gets.

    All this chatter lets us know that reading books is some risky business. What else do you think books are related to in A Break with Charity?

  • The Name English

    Why It's Cool To Be English

    If you're looking to get things done in Salem, it's good to be part of the English family. Having the last name English is a big deal since Mr. E is a well-off merchant and he's pretty well-known around colonial America. This makes the English clan into celebrities every so often.

    So when Susanna wants to talk her way into Tituba's, she figures she can do some name-dropping. And when Mama English is called a witch, her hubby uses his influence to keep her out of jail for a bit. Even when William is imprisoned in Guadeloupe as a pirate, his name helps gain his freedom:

    "For the captain of a ship from Massachusetts Bay Colony was in court, seeking pirates who had plundered many of his vessels. He recognized my name. And since our name is much respected amongst seamen and merchants, it turned out that the pirates had not taken everything from me." (15.33)

    Now that's a pretty powerful name. William isn't even in colonial America and the English name still comes in handy. In fact, without having this name, we're not sure what would've happened to big bro Will.

    Why It Stinks To Be English

    So the name English is pretty cool, but if you ask the afflicted girls, the name also has a darker side. Here's the deal: back in the day, the last name English was actually L'Anglois. Susanna's dad hails from a teeny tiny place called the Isle of Jersey which is off the coast of France, and that's why his name is originally French.

    This might not seem like much, but it's actually a huge deal. There was a lot of hubbub between England and France in the old days. Plus France was Catholic, a super big no-no for the Puritans. And you can bet that the afflicted girls don't like Susanna's family's connection with France one bit.

    So the name English has a good association and a bad one. Are there other names that are really powerful in A Break with Charity?

  • Ships

    Ahoy, fellow Shmoopers. Did you notice all the ships that show up in this book? There're ships all over the place, and we think it has a lot to do with Susanna's big dreams.

    You see, Susanna's big bro William is off at sea, which sounds like the life to our main girl. She thinks being at sea would be the best thing ever because she'd be free as a bird, and since she lives a pretty restricted life in Puritan Salem, you just know that she'd love the freedom that comes with sailing on big wide ocean.

    And when Susanna gets to sail with her big bro, that's exactly how she feels:

    One fine day, I dressed in some of William's clothes and climbed up the mainmast to the crow's nest.

    As I peered out across the calm waters, with the salt spray in my face and the wind blowing my hair, I whispered softly, "This is for you, Mary Bradbury. I do this for you." (Epilogue.14-15)

    Aw shucks, we're actually super touched—Susanna finally has her dream come true when she's on a ship, and she brings her gal pal Mary Bradbury along with her in spirit. Plus, she's got that freedom she was always looking for. Now she just better stay on the lookout for icebergs.

    So we know that ships are associated with dreams and with freedom. What else are ships linked to in this book?

  • Secrets

    There are oodles of secrets in Salem, and they seem to crop up at every turn. Here are the secrets we really enjoyed eavesdropping on:

    • Ann Putnam's secret clique. Whether it's their meetings with Tituba or their pact to lie about being possessed, these girls have secret-keeping in the bag.
    • Bridget Hobbs's secret life in the woods… And all those secrets she learns about the townsfolk.
    • Joseph's secret society of anti-witch-trial folks.
    • And Susanna's big secret, of course—that one's a doozy.

    Are there other important moments with secrets that stood out to you?

    One thing secrets let us know is that the truth is hard to come by in Salem. This result of this is that folks are super suspicious—you'd be hard pressed to find a character that doesn't have some trust issues in this book.

    Just take Susanna's fear of telling her secret to Joseph. He's the most trustworthy guy in, well, pretty much the whole wide world and Susanna is still worried:

    "You were living with us by then. Didn't you know I was working with others against the witchcraft?"

    "Yes, Joseph. And I wanted to tell you—oh, I did! But there was Mary Warren, trying to tell what she knew—and no one would believe her. And then nobody thought Bridget Bishop would hang. No one ever thought they would start executing people in Salem!" (19.55-56)

    Joseph wants to know why Susanna didn't confide in him, and she's got loads of excuses. Can you tell how super scared she was to tell her secret? All those exclamation marks and dashes let us know that Susanna was feeling super antsy, which makes sense since her secret-keeping has some pretty big consequences, like Bridget Bishop being killed.

    All these secrets remind us that trust is really important in this book. And not trusting comes at a cost. For instance, if Susanna had a bit more faith in her buddy Joe and told him her secret earlier, could Bridget Bishop have lived? Now that's a question that would make Susanna do a double-take.

    What else are secrets related to in this book?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person—Central Narrator—Susanna English

    We've got our leading lady here to give us her story. Yep—Susanna English tells us the whole tale from start to finish. What's cool about this is that we get to hear about a big historical event (the Salem Witch Trials) from a super personal perspective. Even Susanna's parents are accused of being witches, and that's about as up-close-and-personal as things can get.

    So since we're so chummy with Susanna, we get to know what she's thinking pretty much all the time. This means that when she's scared about her parents and sis hiding out in New York, we're right there with her. And when she's smooching Johnathan for the first time, we get to see it all through her eyes… and lips.

    Plus Susanna is pretty honest, and even narrates things that she's afraid of, like how she feels guilty about her part in the witch trials:

    Though my name appears not in any of the briefs or letters or public statements written about the witch madness, I was as much a part of the shame of it as any of them.

    I stand as guilty as they. For I knew better and did not step forth to try to stop the madness. Certainly not in any manner that counted. I held back, afraid. (Prologue.17-18)

    Pretty forthcoming, right? Susanna sure does tell us exactly how she's feeling, and her willingness to share the uglier bits about herself help makes this such a great read. Since Susanna is in charge of telling her story, she could cover up her faults—heck, she could lie to us if she really wanted—but instead Susanna tells it like it is, and that makes her a pretty reliable narrator.

    So what do you think? Is Susanna always a reliable storyteller? Or are there patches where you don't really trust her?

  • Plot Analysis


    Cliquey Girls Have All the Fun

    Susanna is feeling really left out when the girls in Salem hang out without her. Oh, and they're hanging out in the reverend's house cooking up some magic with Tituba. There are already lots of secrets afoot, plus some spooky prophecies about impending doom. All of this sets us up for some major action coming up soon.

    Rising Action

    Lies Are a Powerless Girl's Best Friend

    The clique at the parsonage grows and Ann Putnam becomes the leader. These gals start accusing townsfolk of being witches, which is totally ridiculous, and when Susanna finds out that these gals are lying just for fun she tries to get them to tell the truth. Throw in a little blackmail when Ann threatens Susanna's family and things are only getting worse and worse around Salem.


    The Truth Shall Set the Witches Free

    We've got two big turning points in this book. The first one is when the so-called witches start to be hanged—this is a super sad turning point that doesn't bode well for the rest of Salem. Susanna also has a personal turning point of her own when she finally decides to come clean about Ann's lies. The bad news is that lots of folks die during this climax, but there's good news too: Susanna's turning point helps make Salem a better place in the long run.

    Falling Action

    Can't We All Just Get Along?

    Finally the witches are being released and the town is getting back in order. Well, there is quite a bit of hunger because folks neglected crops. And you can bet that it's not super easy for people to move on from the huge hullaballoo that Ann stirred up. But things are slowly returning back to normal, and that lets us know that the story is winding down.


    Questions and Answers

    At the end of the book, Susanna looks back at the Salem witch trials. And gosh are those memories hard to forget. On the one hand, there's oodles of resolution in this book—after all, Susanna's family is back in Salem and even big bro William is home. But Susanna is also left with a bunch of questions, like whether she can ever move on from the past and if Salem can stay safe from witchcraft forever more.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Historical References

    • Cotton Mather (4.41-44, 20.50, 22.40-42)
    • Anne Hutchinson (6.22-24, 6.57-58)
    • Goody Glover (4.44, 7.58)
    • Thomas Brattle (Chapter 23)