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Give the Devil his due – ‘Hour of the Witch’

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Our country’s history is packed with stories. And while some of those stories are generally familiar, even those that we’ve dug deeply into time and again have new nuances waiting for us to explore. Take the Salem Witch Trials, for instance. It’s one of those vividly bleak moments in time with which the majority of Americans bear at least a passing familiarity.

But those trials, as horrible as they were, were not the beginning of the story. Those terrible acts didn’t take place in a vacuum, but were rather the culmination of a decades-long period of repression and hysteria.

Chris Bohjalian’s new book “Hour of the Witch” (Doubleday, $28.95) takes us further back, some 30 years before the horrors of Salem. It’s a look at one woman’s efforts to reconcile her religion and her beliefs with the pain and suffering – emotional and physical – inflicted on her by those around her. It’s the story of what it means to stand up for oneself, even in the face of a society that has little interest in protecting her.

Blending historical events with page-turning thrills, “Hour of the Witch” offers a propulsive and powerful tale of what can happen when a person who is pushed to the brink simply refuses to accept the status quo and pushes forward in a quest for justice – even if that person knows deep down that justice is almost certainly not forthcoming.

The year is 1662. The city is Boston. Mary Deerfield is a young woman of just 24. By all measure, she is a beautiful woman, the sort of woman who in most circumstances would not want for suitors. But while her family is wealthy, the truth is that in the midst of the strict Puritan religiosity of this corner of the New World, there are precious few suitable options for a match.

And so it is that Mary was married to Thomas Deerfield, a much older man. He was a widower – his first wife died after being thrown from a horse – but he was also a very successful miller, one of the more prominent businessmen in the community. And so, the match was made.

But behind closed doors, Thomas Deerfield is far from an upstanding citizen. For years, he has been emotionally and at times physically abusive toward his wife, all in the guise of “correcting” her flaws in the eyes of the Lord. Hiding behind the notion of godliness, Thomas makes Mary’s life an unending circle of misery.

One night, a drunken Thomas drives a three-tined fork – an item imported by Mary’s merchant father and viewed by some as ungodly – into the back of Mary’s hand. This grievous injury leads her to petition the local magistrates for divorce on the grounds of “cruelty,” or what we would call domestic violence.

If only it were that simple.

In a community where fear of God’s wrath triumphs over all and everyone is constantly on the lookout for signs of the Devil’s presence, someone like Mary, a woman who has the temerity to question her perceived betters, is going to become the focus of many suspicions. And there are plenty of people out in the world with agendas of their own – agendas for which they are more than happy to commit whatever heinous acts of deceit and treachery to achieve.

And so it is Mary Deerfield who is left to stand alone against a system designed to keep her and those like her in her place. She understands that her actions will have consequences, though she is unprepared for just how far-reaching those consequences might be.

“Hour of the Witch” is Bohjalian at his best. He’s drawing from real history while endowing it with his own propulsive storytelling touch. The resulting narrative is intense and intimate, allowing us into the headspace of a woman trapped by circumstance and searching for a path – any path – out.

Mary Deerfield is one of the most fascinating characters to spring from Bohjalian’s pen (and there have been a lot of them). His gift for crafting well-rounded and compelling female characters is a rare one; in Mary, we get a prime example. And in watching this intelligent and thoughtful woman struggle to find justice or peace in a culture where she’s not allowed either is both heartbreaking and incredibly engaging.

Bohjalian’s gifts as a researcher are front and center here as well. His ability to recreate this particular place, both in the nuts-and-bolts scene-setting and the cultural attitudes, is unparalleled – the reader is fully dropped into this world, left to be equal parts fascinated and frustrated by the myriad differences between that time and this one.

And of course, there is the prose. When Bohjalian is really cooking, there’s a kinetic energy to his storytelling that is unlike anything else in the realm of popular fiction. He brings a brightness to the page that illuminates the entire narrative, creating a powerful glow. But with light comes darkness, and the shine he creates also contributes to pockets of sinister shadow. It’s a combination that is ideally suited for telling a tale such as this one.

“Hour of the Witch” is another exceptional offering from Chris Bohjalian, one that features the hallmarks of his best work while also breaking new ground. Vividly realized thanks to solid research and captivating characterization, it’s a book that will likely prove difficult for you to put down. And once you’ve read the story of Mary Deerfield, well … you won’t soon forget it.

Last modified on Saturday, 08 May 2021 17:58

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