Chris Bohjalian’s new book, Hour of the Witch, is proof to me that even a beloved author sometimes writes a book that feels like a dud. Your mileage may vary, but despite having elements I usually love, this book just didn’t do it for me. I love journeying back in time—here we go to 1662-3 Boston. And yes, I love a good witch story. Unfortunately, this book felt stilted and depressing to me.
Our main character is the generally Godly wife, Mary Deerfield. She’s just 24 and married her much-older widower husband, Thomas, at 19. He is a successful businessman, but also a drinker. And particularly when drunk, he’s nasty and both emotionally and physically abusive. Mary is desperate for relief, possibly even escape from his clutches.
So, she asks the magistrates for a divorce from Thomas, on the grounds of cruelty. Her father is an even more successful businessman and, along with her mother, supports Mary’s desire. As the story progresses, the witch accusations bubble just under the surface. The family tries to keep Mary from being accused of witchcraft.
Considering that in 17th century Boston a woman willing to speak truth to power was considered possessed by the Devil, this is no small task. Despite the specter of spells and witchcraft, the reality is that Mary literally has no power in the face of these men, especially her husband who abuses her. Imagining what a woman’s life was like back then is nothing short of deeply depressing.
Mary’s Boston was a world of emotional suppression. Women expressing their feelings risked being branded a witch. Even being overly happy held the possible accusation of being less than devout. And reading page after well-written page utterly exhausted me. It also made connection with the characters harder.
Mary is from a devout family and there’s a lot of preaching and sermonizing in this book. Nearly every character follows the Puritan beliefs of extreme devotion to their religious beliefs. But still, the men are excused from accusations of bad behavior when then gamble, drink excessively, and beat their wives. The misogyny runs rampant. And all I pray now is that I never time travel to this time period, for I’d surely be burned at the stake for speaking my mind (among other things).
However, if a journey to this world appeals to you, perhaps Mary will inspire and enlighten you. She’s persistent and willing to sacrifice all to escape this nasty husband. Sadly, women today still fight these battles. Just with fewer accusations of witchcraft.
Pair with the Witches of New Orleans series by J.D. Horn for a fantastical perspective on being a witch. Or try The Secret People: Parish-Pump Witchcraft, Wise-Women and Cunning Ways by Melusine Draco if you prefer a historical perspective on the topic.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Chris Bohjalian, and Doubleday Books for an advanced readers copy in exchange for this honest review. Anticipated publication date is May 4, 2021.