In Boston in 1662, it was safest to fit in. To buck the strictures of the Puritan elders was to court death in this life and possibly damnation in the next, as the young woman at the center of Chris Bohjalian’s “Hour of the Witch” comes to know.
Mary Deerfield was never going to slide easily into the regimented life prescribed by Puritan Boston. Too pretty by far — with “delft blue” eyes and skin “smooth as … porcelain,” associations that evoke her privileged childhood in England — the 24-year-old recalls with longing the old world, where “grown-ups played cards” and “her bedroom had always been sunny.” Curious, intelligent, and compassionate, she has taken up the study of “simples,” or herbal cures. This craft, gained through her friendship with the widow Constance Winston, is some solace for her childless marriage to the bitter widower Thomas, whose drunken rages are becoming increasingly violent. But when a young man she is attempting to treat dies, she comes under suspicion of having caused his death. Worse, when two forks — a controversial new utensil also known as “the Devil’s tines” in godly Boston — are found buried in her dooryard, the accusations accumulate.
What follows unfolds with escalating drama, as Mary protests the accusations and Thomas lashes out, stabbing her hand with one of the unearthed forks. She flees, seeking sanctuary with her parents, and determines to pursue a divorce. This is a rare and difficult undertaking, requiring a public trial, and even her parents’ loyalty is tested as the court hears the testimony of a servant who may covet Mary’s husband and social standing or may truly fear her. Before long, the angry and injured young wife is the one on trial for witchcraft — fighting for her life as the apparent evidence of devilry accrues.
Once these trials begin, “Hour of the Witch” essentially becomes a legal thriller, albeit one set in a world with very different rules. Unfortunately, despite Mary’s relatable voice, with a smattering of archaic language for mood, the trial scenes lack the variety and color of our protagonist’s visits to Boston’s busy port or the tension of the Deerfields’ home. More frustrating to modern readers, if historically accurate, are the rules of the governing Court of Assignments. Sexism and misogyny are sanctioned, or, as Constance warns Mary, telling her of another woman hanged as a witch: “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.” Worse, hearsay is admissible in this court, and it isn’t until Mary begins to take control of the public narrative that she can really begin to defend herself. As she turns to apparent good works to build allies, however, she is tempted to take justice in her own hands in a more permanent way.
This temptation crystalizes the novel’s deeper themes as Mary struggles to understand herself – and what she is willing to do to be free. This knotty dilemma lies at the heart of what is, at a deeper level, a novel of psychological suspense. Can one know if one is, indeed, damned?
While the quest for self-knowledge is eternal — and the wobbly reliability of narrators a recurring motif in crime fiction — for Mary this question has a particular relevance. The Puritan belief in predestination dictates that salvation is predetermined and that no amount of good works (or bad) will change one’s fate in the afterlife. In Bohaljian’s deft portrayal, Mary chafes at her societal and marital confines in a manner that will be familiar to modern readers. But she also believably worries that her sexual fantasies — spurred by her husband’s perfunctory lovemaking and a handsome young stranger — are signs of damnation. Following the repressive rules may convey the patina of the blessed, but Mary is too smart to subscribe fully to this peer pressure of the pure, aware that her playacting for her defense hides much darker motives. “[I]t was the recognition of her own mean desires and roiling demons where things began to grow muddy,” she notes.
While its themes of domestic abuse and sexism give “The Hour of the Witch” a contemporary feel, it is this central quest for self-determination that resonates most deeply throughout the book. Ultimately, these themes will come together as the mystery of the forks is revealed and Mary digs deeper to uncover her own truth in a surprising, if not entirely convincing, conclusion that, just maybe, shows how timeless some battles — and some heroines — are.
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “A Cat on the Case.”
HOUR OF THE WITCH
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 416 pages, $27.95