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One Frightening Way to Ruin a Life: Make an Accusation of Witchcraft

Chris Bohjalian's The Hour of the Witch

liquid being poured into bowl and pestle

Nothing is worse than being accused of a crime you didn't commit, especially in an era where you could be killed for that crime.

Chris Bojhalian's The Hour of the Witch propels you into a period in our history where witchcraft was a sin, a crime punishable by death. The accusation of witchcraft, whether true or false, could not only ruin your life but END it.

Historical fiction that is also a thriller, The Hour of the Witch is a page-turner and a reminder of why unfounded accusations are so dangerous and why our witch trials were so despicable.

You'll never think of a fork in the same way again...

Mary is a beautiful 24-year-old English woman who immigrated to Boston with her well-to-do parents in 1662. She ends up married to 42-year-old Thomas Deerfield. Deerfield's first wife has died, and Mary acquires an adult daughter-in-law with an attractive husband when she marries Thomas.

Thomas Deerfield is cruel and abusive, but he keeps up a good front with the rest of the town who see him as a monied man with a profitable business. Sure, he drinks at the tavern, but he's never been jailed for drunkenness. Mary is a strong-willed woman who knows that he is often "drink-drunk" and rails against Thomas' continual degradation of her, including his barb that she has nothing but "white meat for brains."

That's where the "fork" comes in

I would never have imagined that the humble fork, one of our most common modern utensils, could have had such an evil connotation in the late 1600s. Mary's father is a respected merchant, and he has imported forks to sell in the Boston community. (They are, after all, accepted and used in London.) The people of Boston, however, believe that forks are evil and refer to them as "the Devil's tines."

One night, dead sober, Thomas purposely stabs Mary's hand with a three-tined fork that Mary's mother has given Mary as a gift. The "fork" incident sets off a series of devastating events.

Divorce in Colonial America?

Mary uses her broken and bruised hand as a reason to leave Thomas. She flees to her parent's home and asks the officials of the town for a divorce.

If you're wondering if divorce was even a possibility in Colonial America, you're not alone.

The answer is YES.

Bohjalian actually got the idea from a reference to a New England court case in 1672 when Nanny Naylor obtained a divorce from her husband on the grounds of cruelty. (It's the single recorded divorce case we have a record of from that time period.) Bojahlian studied 17th Century law and this one extant divorce case as a springboard for The Hour of the Witch novel.

Feminism, fertility, and fear

Mary Deerfield is a strong-minded woman who wants to lead a fulfilling life without the fear of being abused. (Seems reasonable, right?) But living a fulfilling life in an era when a woman owned nothing, when a husband had the right to "control" and "educate" his wife, and when anyone" different" ran the risk of being ostracized - or worse yet, accused of witchcraft - made a satisfying life difficult to achieve.

It's no surprise that Mary is attracted to the kindness of men who treat her with respect, unlike her husband. (Who wouldn't be?) Mary Deerfield longs for love, a desire that causes her to act in ways that her community considers a sin.

A beautiful young woman, Mary Deerfield is looked at with suspicion because she remains childless after several years of marriage. The misfortune of not having a child stigmatizes her, and her role as an honorable, God-fearing woman is questioned by others since she has not been able to conceive. ("Surely," they think, "she is sinful if she hasn't been blessed with babies.")

She's a witch!

Not only does a childless Mary Deerfield attempt to divorce her husband in an era where such a move was rare, but she also fraternizes with an old woman who works with herbs and cures. The townspeople have ostracized the older women because they believe that the woman's cures are the work of the devil.

When Mary and Thomas' indentured servant girl develops a crush on Thomas, she takes the opportunity to misinterpret Mary's every move and accuse her of dealing with the devil. When someone buries forks in the yard outside of the Deerfield home and Mary finds them, the servant girl accuses Mary of dealing with the devil.

Probably the most frightening element of the book is how easy it is to ruin a life with baseless accusations. (Things haven't changed. Three hundred years later, it's still easy to ruin a life with false statements.)

If the courtroom divorce proceedings were brutal, the witchcraft trial was worse.

Courtroom Drama

The courtroom chapters begin with quotes from key people of the trial. Bohjalian crafts these statements so skillfully that I was convinced they were fact and not fiction, a tribute to his talent.

The addition of these quotes added gravitas and varying perspectives of the events.

History. Legal drama. Witchcraft. Abuse. Feminism. The Hour of the Witch has it all.

I haven't yet been disappointed by a Chris Bohjalian novel, finding them fast and fun to read with compelling plots. The Hour of the Witch is no exception.



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