Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian is described as a historical thriller. I only found it to be moderately thrilling, especially during the first half. But still, it is an enjoyable story that gives a deep insight into the mindset of the Puritans who founded Boston as a holy commonwealth. These religious leaders had exclusive control over all aspects of colonial life. Their world was full of hellfire and brimstone sermons which caused a deep and constant fear of the devil. With no separation of church and state, religion was used as a weapon to keep people in line. Women who showed independence and intelligence were often called witches. Quakers were publicly whipped for their beliefs and people were excommunicated if they spoke out against the church leaders.
The protagonist of Hour of the Witch is Mary Deerfield, a 24-year-old woman married to the much older, Thomas. Mary came to Boston with her wealthy parents when she was 16 and married when she was 19. Thomas, a widower, is a respected merchant. They do not have children, which causes Mary great sadness. Mary’s father imports luxury items from Europe and the Caribbean, including three-tined forks, which many Puritans call the “devil’s tines”. They believe the forks to be instruments of evil.
Mary and Thomas live together with an indentured servant, Catherine. Catherine has a great fondness for Thomas, but none for her mistress. When Mary finds some of the forks buried in the front yard, along with a pestle, Catherine believes Mary is trying to cast a spell on Thomas. When Catherine’s brother dies after Mary tried to ease his pain with simples, Catherine thinks Mary killed him. Later, a mark of the devil is carved into the wood of the house and a coin with the same mark is found in an unusual place. Mary is obsessed with finding out who is trying to curse her household.
Thomas abuses Mary, both mentally and physically, but only when Catherine is not around or is asleep. He accuses her of having “white meat” for a brain, when in fact, she is very clever and enterprising. Thomas’s first wife supposedly died after being struck in the head by a horse, but there were no witnesses. The final straw comes for Mary when Thomas stabs her left hand with one of the Devil’s Tines. Mary files for divorce, which is practically unheard of in the Puritan community. She is willing to do anything, perhaps even murder, to get out from under Thomas’s cruelties. Mary must not only fight Thomas but the extreme prejudices and shocking beliefs of the community. During all this tribulation, she falls in love with another man. It is her hope for a future with him that propels her to get out of the marriage.
There are two trials in the novel. The first is for the divorce hearing. The second is when Mary is accused of being a witch due to those dang forks which have reemerged. Both times the servant, Catherine, testifies against Mary. The legal system is a farce. Magistrates asks outrageous questions that have nothing to do with the issue before the panel. Witnesses are encouraged to speculate as to motives and to give religious opinions. Mary often speaks up during testimony to interrupt a witness. I had to laugh at this jab “When someone disputed a magistrate, it tended to be a lawyer, whose unpopular profession was known for its tendency to bark and bray.” Mary’s outspokenness does her no favors in either trial.
4-stars. Book club recommended because there will be great discussions about domestic abuse, Puritans, the justice system, and prejudices. Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for my advanced reader copy. This novel is expected to be published on May 4, 2021.