I checked “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian out from my local library app on the 5th day I had Covid. I was too sick to hold a book, so I downloaded the audiobook and listened as I regained the strength to sit up in bed and hold a phone and book again. I’m going to fully recover, but even vaccinated, I had a terrible time of COVID-19. Listening to this book was a wonderful escape from a terrible sickness.
I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian since my brother gave me a copy of The Double Bind for Christmas about 13 years ago. I really enjoyed the book, and throughout the last decade I’ve picked up a few books by this author and found them to be mostly good. I really enjoyed The Guest Room and The Sleepwalker. I read The Flight Attendant before it was a television series and I did not enjoy it, but it appears that a lot of people love the show so don’t let me discourage you.
I’ve always enjoyed books about the Puritans and early New England colonies. You generally know going into most of these books that the end is never a good one for the woman, who were believed to be inferior physically and intellectually and certainly subordinate to all men. Bohjalian captures the struggles and frustrations of women at the time, and this is what makes the book a good one.
Hour of the Witch Plot Summary
A young Puritan woman—faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul—plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive novel of historical suspense.
Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life.
But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary—a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony—soon becomes herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows.
A twisting, tightly plotted novel of historical suspense from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying story of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.Publisher’s summary at Amazon.com’s Hour of the Witch Listing
Hour of the Witch Review
Bohjalian explores an interesting premise in this novel. What could a battered wife do to liberate herself in 1660s Boston? Mary Deerfield is an excellent character with whom to explore this premise. She is very devout and believes, just like many Puritans did, that God was watching them each and every day, and that Satan was trying his damnedest to tempt each and every settler of the new world. Several times in the book, Mary says or thinks along the lines that they left the “old world” because it was lost to sin, only to begin to ruin the new world with vanity, dishonesty, and greed.
Mary Deerfield is not a submissive type of woman, and her husband Thomas’ cruelty in both word and deed push her to make a very bold step for a woman of the time. Mary is believed to be barren, having given Thomas Deerfield no children. Barren women were often considered to be evil or cursed.
One evening, when she cannot sleep, Mary buries something in her front yard. Her servant girl sees her and screams, accusing her of being a witch. The servant, Catherine, brother has just died, and she is now convinced that Mary helped kill him. The truth was, Mary visited him quite a bit and genuinely hoped the boy would get better.
Thomas comes downstairs to the commotion, sees the servant girl leave, and decides to perform a cruel test on Mary to determine if she is indeed a witch. He takes a three-tined fork, referred to throughout the book as “the Devil’s tines”, and impales Mary’s hand to the table. After this, she can no longer tolerate staying in this marriage.
Mary’s family is wealthy and respected. Because of this, she feels secure in her decision to leave Thomas Deerfield, move home with her parents, and petition for a divorce. The author does a great job here of towing the line of what is realistic and what isn’t. A woman seeking a divorce in 1660s Boston would create a huge spectacle. There have always been different rules for the wealthy, and the fact that Mary is even given a hearing in the Court of Assistance is a testament to her family’s standing.
The magistrates are all representations of different factions of early settlers. There is a zealous magistrate who very much wants to hang a witch. There is a moderate magistrate that seems sympathetic to Mary, but in the end her petition for divorce is not granted and she is forced by the court to go home to Thomas Deerfield.
Mary is devout but is no saint. She, like any woman, is attracted to some of the men in Boston. She enjoys pretty things. One of her favorite pass times is walking along the wharf. She there meets a man named Henry who she immediately becomes attracted to. They begin to meet clandestinely and plot that they will be together someday.
I don’t want to spoil the book, but I will say that Mary does plot to poison her husband. He does not die, but she is then framed and tried as a witch. The magistrates seem to have all made up their minds before the trial begins. Even so, much testimony is given and Mary is able to speak her mind. The court’s verdict was never in question, really.
I’m going to spoil the ending in white text below. Highlight if you would like to hear about the ending. If not, keep scrolling.
Mary realizes during the trial who it is that has planted the forks and carved the mark of the Devil upon her house. She does not want to accuse this person but is instead willing to accept the Magistrate’s verdict of guilty. She is to be hung in the morning. She believes she will be judged accordingly in Heaven and is at peace with the verdict. As she sleeps in the jail at night, the person who actually buried the tines comes with a stolen key to free her. She makes her escape, gets her revenge, and runs away with Henry. They live happily ever after, with children. This is a beautiful fiction, of course. In Boston, 1662, she surely would have been hanged. It was nice, though, to escape reality and read a book that raises the possibility that some of the accused witches or oppressed women did make their way to safety. To freedom. To happily ever after. There is much I have not spoiled in this review. You will delight in reading this book.
Justice is served in this book, but not by the court. Mary is a victim of her time, but she is triumphant in never losing her faith or her courage. She is a flawed, realistic character. The plot of this book is fast paced and Chris Bohjalian is a wonderful storyteller. Even with the use of “prithee” and language common to Puritans it was a captivating read. I highly recommend this book. It is true to the history of the Massachusetts colony, and written to keep you turning pages. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!
Book Club Discussion Questions for Hour of the Witch
1. Mary struggles with fertility in an era where women are believed to have no value but for birthing and raising children. Outwardly, she is humble and accepting of the shame brought upon her. How does her “barren womb” affect her inwardly?
2. Mary realizes who has buried the devils tines, but does not breathe a word of it, even after she is found guilty. Did she do the right thing?
3. The ending is not the likely conclusion, whereas the rest of the book has a strong sense of realism. Does the outcome make the story more or less enjoyable as a whole?
4. Constance Winston is an older woman who is reclusive and the local gossip whispers that she must be a witch. Why does Mary risk visiting her after she decides to abandon their plot?
5. Knowing the bias of the courts against women, and the ease with which they are accused of witchcraft and hanged, why do Constance Winston and the excommunicated family in the woods assist her?
6. The Puritans believed God and the Devil were with them constantly, always involved in their lives and judging their behavior. The Devil was always tempting, and God was always watching. Which characters were likely true believers, based on their actions?
7. Which characters would have not made it past a Puritan God’s pearly gates?
8. Why does Mary keep visiting Henry, knowing how both the community and her husband would react poorly?
9. Who do you think planted the tines and devil’s coin into Mary’s apron?
10. According to Thomas Deerfield, he and Mary’s father struck a deal during the divorce hearing. Do you believe him?