Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Set in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1662, Hour of the Witch takes us back to a time when witch-hunt fervor was on the rise. The twenty-four-year-old Mary Deerfield had arrived in the New World from England with her wealthy merchant parents not so long ago. The lack of suitable suitors in a “community of saints” had forced her to marry Thomas Deerfield, a well-to-do widow old enough to be her father, and their marriage is not a happy one. Thomas is a cruel man, who verbally and physically abuses his wife when no one is around, and Mary, so far, has borne this ill-treatment in silence, blaming all the signs of abuse on ‘her clumsiness.’ But when Thomas, in a drunken rage, stabs her with a fork, Mary decides enough is enough and begins a divorce petition. At a time when abandonment and adultery were the main grounds for divorce, Mary’s efforts are seen as an attempt to drag a good man’s name through the mud. Also, when Catherine, Deerfield’s servant girl who is enamored by Thomas, accuses Mary of witchcraft, the divorce proceedings spiral off in an unexpected direction, and Mary must fight to save her neck from the hangman’s noose.

Even though Mary Deerfield isn’t an actual historical figure, according to Chris Bohjalian, this story was inspired by records of Puritan trials in the seventeenth century – particularly the lesser-known Hartford witch trials, which predated Salem witch trials by almost three decades. By the time Mary is tried for witchcraft, the trails at nearby Harford are in full swing, and the all-male bench of Boston magistrates want to stop the ‘dark magic epidemic’ before it takes seed in their community. Bohjalian skillfully demonstrates the thin grounds which were used to hang the accused and how the judicial system, controlled by men, was biased against women. In this story, Mary’s intellect and wealth make her even more of an attractive target, just like the real-life Ann Hibbins, the sister-in-law of Massachusetts’s governor Richard Bellingham, who was hanged in 1656. As Mary’s friend, Constance, (a fictional character) who is shunned by society for being non-conformist (she’s independent and unmarried), puts it about Ann Hibbins’ execution:

She was sent to the scaffold because she had a sharper tongue and a shrewder mind than her accusers. It is always the case when men hang women… there is nothing that frightens a man more than a woman who does not live happily under a man’s thumb.

Hour of the Witch is a well-researched novel that made me glad of the progress that has been made on the women’s rights front in the last century. But also reading it in this particular moment, and thinking of the heightened misogyny and backlash women’s rights and gender equality have faced over the last few years, reminded me of the importance of remaining vigilant and not letting women’s freedoms regress.

3 stars.

Note: Many thanks to Doubleday Books for sending me an ARC of Hour of the Witch.

One comment

  1. Very, very sobering. I agree with your cautionary conclusion, Nirmala.

    Liked by 1 person

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