Chris Bohjalian is one of the more prolific contemporary writers who is truly dexterous in his writing. In his career that spans more than 25 years, he has demonstrated a unique ability to pivot between contemporary settings and historical fictional (and in at least one case, the future) as well as ethical or societal quandaries. Many readers of my generation came to know him because of Midwives, (a book that happens to be on my Top 100 list) a story of a midwife caught in the aftermath of a decision she made in the heat of a life and death healthcare emergency.
In Hour of the Witch, Bohjalian takes us to 1662 Puritan Boston where Mary Deerfield wants a simple divorce from her abusive husband, who most recently drove a fork into the back of her hand. But a woman who believes she deserves such independence is suspect, and the evidence of witchcraft is pliable in the hands of many in her colony – powerful men and female rivalries alike – who would rather see Mary burn or hang than set such a scandalous precedent.
The narrative follows Mary through her impossible circumstances including two trials. She understands what’s at stake, how narrow her chances are for success, and yet she doesn’t give up on her quest for personal freedom – however and wherever she can find it. In this, Bohjalian demonstrates his true gift – that regardless of time, place or circumstances, he is expert at presenting the plight of women, including the strength and ingenuity it takes to survive.
And while the setup for Hour of the Witch feels familiar, the ending is anything but common. For contemplative readers and book clubs, Hour of the Witch will provide much for discussion – the primary topic, a handful of unusual relationships and of course the surprise and (perhaps) controversial ending, not to mention Mary herself.
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