Book: “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian
Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, May 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: 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.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
Back in middle school I decided to read “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, after my drama class chose it as one of the scenes that we’d perform and I was voted to be Mary Warren in said scene. After reading the whole play my thirteen year old self was super indignant, and I basically have had a seething anger deep in my soul for any kind of witchcraft or Satanic Panic fueled hysteria ever since. Because of this, I was eager to snatch up the new historical fiction thriller “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian. I’ve enjoyed Bohjalian’s stories in the past, I love me a good historical fiction thriller, and demolishing the Patriarchy in Puritan times? We ALL know how I feel about that!
Now I don’t want anyone thinking that “Hour of the Witch” is a pro-Witchcraft-As-Way-To-Smash-Misogyny kind of tale. Instead, Bohjalian takes the idea of a community turning on a strong minded woman and tries to tell it in a way that would be realistic towards the time and culture. Mary isn’t a woman who ends up turning to Satan because it’s the only clear path to agency in her life. Instead, we get a tale of a woman who dares stand up for herself and wants to advocate for her health and happiness against an abusive husband while still being God fearing and devout, and while also questioning power structures that are hypocritical. I admittedly don’t have as much breadth of knowledge in this part of American history and Puritan times, but from the historical notes in the back it seems like Bohjalian did his very best to make it realistic, and therein I found Mary to be believable. Her story of trying to divorce her abusive husband Thomas, and being the target of scorn and then witchcraft accusations for daring to push against the misogynistic norms, is suspenseful, frustrating, and incredibly readable. I loved Mary as a character, and seeing her fight in the face of powerful and abusive men was both cathartic, but also tense, as we all know how the power structures during the Puritan times could easily cry ‘witch’ and have a person killed (that said, while this story really does a good job of addressing the oppression that women faced, little is noted of the Indigenous groups in the area. I’m not sure how Bohjalian could have tackled such a huge aspect from Mary’s perspective without feeding into paternalistic or oppressive views, but when the groups were mentioned it felt like a nod without doing much work beyond that. Take that as you will).
In terms of plot, “Hour of the Witch” is definitely steeped in suspense, as well as a little bit of mystery. Working against Mary in her endeavors are her husband’s standing in the community, the fact that no one has seen him hurt her as he’s always careful to do it when they are alone, and the fact that some three tined forks were found buried in her yard, which at the time were thought to be ‘the devils tines’ due to the three prongs resembling a pitchfork (side note: when I worked at a historic fort that had a context set during the Georgian period, a dining demonstration did mention the lack of three tined forks in America in spite of the fact they were prevalent in Europe. We didn’t talk about ‘the devils tines’ aspect, however). The questions are 1) is Mary going to be able to escape her husband without being convicted of witchcraft, and 2) who IS the one who is setting her up to look like a witch? Such moments will make you shake with rage, but it also just goes to show that some things never change. Mary is accused of lying for attention, lying to offset the fact she hasn’t been able to have children as of yet, lying because she’s lustful, and lying because she’s a witch. These days, maybe we don’t see as much ‘witch’ stuff, but the rest of those accusations against an abused woman in hopes of painting her as a liar are all too familiar. And as for what is really going on with the buried forks in her yard, I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on there, as Bohjalian has a whole SLEW of suspects and possibilities, some one which are not as they seem. I was left on pins and needles worrying about what was going to happen to Mary, as well as wanting to spit nails out of rage when looking at how the men in the community (with a couple exceptions) and some of the women were treating her because of the misogyny that was rife. BE PREPARED TO BE MAD.
Overall, I thought that “Hour of the Witch” was a pretty good read, with a unique setting that felt timeless all the same. It may not be the Satanic feminism that I tend to love, but I still enjoyed it!
Rating 8: Suspenseful and unique in voice and setting, “Hour of the Witch” tells a tale as old as time about misogyny, women, and a society that uses one to keep the other in its place no matter what the outcome.