Title: The Hour of the Witch
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.
Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.
I have read quite a few books by Chris Bohjalian by now, and without fail, they’re always interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking. And while most of the books I’ve read by him have been contemporary fiction, I’ve also read two terrific historical novels (The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins), both of which shed light on important and disturbing historical periods and show these periods through the eyes of ordinary people.
In The Hour of the Witch, the author goes several centuries into the past to bring us a story set in the Puritan settlement of Boston in the 1600s. If you’ve read stories of the early Colonial days, then the moral code and rhythm of the community’s life may feel familiar.
Mary Deerfield, at age 24, is married to a truly awful man, Thomas Deerfield, a miller. Thomas often comes home “drink-drunk” and berates her, intimidates her, and beats her. His violence escalates over time, as does his verbal cruelty — but apparently no one sees his abhorrent behavior but Mary. Their servant girl Catherine appears to be enamored of Thomas, and Mary feels such shame about her marriage that she hides her bruises and keeps the violence a deep, dark secret.
On top of the misery of this abusive behavior, Mary has not conceived, despite five years of marriage. Her “barren” state subjects her to even more abuse from Thomas, not to mention public scorn and mistrust. If she’s barren, it must be God’s will — and could that be because she’s in league with the Devil?
“Women who are barren often act strangely. It would be like an owl that couldn’t fly: it would be antithetical to our Lord’s purpose, and the animal would, by necessity, go mad.”
Mary’s troubles grow further when she innocently accepts a gift from her father, a successful importer — a set of silver forks. But in the Puritan view, these are “the Devil’s tines”, since a three-pronged implement resembles a pitchfork, and those who use the Devil’s tines must therefore be suspect of inviting in evil.
When Mary finds a pair of forks buried in her garden, she suspects that someone is trying to curse her, and when Catherine observes her in the garden with the forks, Catherine immediately suspects that Mary herself is in league with the Devil.
Thomas’s violence eventually causes severe injury and Mary flees to her parents, taking the unprecedented and dangerous step of petitioning the elders for divorce. In the book’s two sections, we see two different trials, each giving us a horrifying view of what passes for justice at that time. The magistrates follow their own set of rules, accept as evidence hearsay and superstitious signs, and have no respect for women — especially not a barren woman like Mary, who, by their logic, must be guilty of something bad in order to be deemed unworthy of bearing children.
If it sounds like a no-win situation for Mary, as well as any woman who’s unusual and perhaps not quite meek enough, that’s because it is. You can see where Mary’s situation is headed, even when she doesn’t quite believe it, and we readers know early on that Mary’s legal case as well as her domestic situation will go from bad to worse.
The Hour of the Witch presents a fascinating view of Puritan life, although it doesn’t exactly feel new or different to me. I’ve read enough history books and articles about the period to have a pretty decent sense of what a woman’s life would have been like at the time, and the notion of an outspoken woman being accused of witchcraft isn’t exactly startling.
The Puritan phrasing makes the dialogue feel slow and heavy throughout the book, with characters exclaiming such things as “Thou canst not believe that!” and “Do what thou likest” and “I thank thee”. Maybe that’s supposed to be authentic speech, but it feels awkward, especially when a character later in the book says “I feel bad that she has been dragged into this”, which could be something said in a 21st century heart-to-heart.
I did really like Mary as a character, although she makes some unwise choices along the way — but for the most part, these just illustrate how very little control a woman of the time would have had over her own life, and how even the slightest step out of line could lead to life-threatening consequences.
The Hour of the Witch feels a little simple in comparison to some of the more twisty-turvy plots I’ve read by this author, but I still enjoyed reading it. Despite the sometimes slow pace, I was invested in the outcome and had to know Mary’s fate.
If you’re interested in this era in US history, then I’d definitely recommend checking out The Hour of the Witch!
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