Hour of the Witch
A just-all-right Salem Witch Trial drama, Hour of the Witch feels in places like The Scarlet Letter – Demi Moore’s film rewrite, not the Hawthorne classic. Yet Chris Bohjalian’s skillful way of getting into his protagonist’s head keeps this one from sinking below the midpoint mark.
Mary Deerfield is the beautiful, young, and fiery second wife of Thomas Deerfield. Living with him in Massachusetts Bay Colony, she suffers from physical and mental abuse from her sexually dissatisfying, drunken husband.
Mary is already under suspicion from the people in her village. She produces simples (medicinal tinctures), and rumors start circulating that a witch taught her the art of medicine. A servant flees their house, claiming she saw Mary bury ‘the devil’s tines’ in the garden. A boy whom she’d been treating with her tinctures dies. Thomas considers her a poor wife because she does not live in pure servitude to him, and he frequently belittles and beats her.
One day, Thomas chooses to disprove the notion that Mary is a witch by stabbing her hand with a fork; she bleeds, and thus she is not a witch. But for Mary it is one cruelty too many – and this one, meted out soberly, she cannot explain away. Refusing to suffer and live under his tyranny any longer, she does something nearly unheard of both the 1600s and the puritan society in which she lives – she files for divorce on the grounds of cruelty.
Mary has a long climb against hard odds. Her apparent barrenness, her lack of interest in household duties, and her interest in life outside the house and church all mark her out as a possible witch. She has few supporters – her mother and father and stepdaughter Peregrine among them. As the divorce perambulates and Thomas threatens to accuse her of witchcraft, she meets Henry, a handsome man who sees the world differently. Will they fall in love and figure out how to escape the hell of Puritan Massachusetts? Or will Mary find herself dangling at the end of a hangman’s rope?
Hour of the Witch is a modern abusive husband flick transported to ye olden days. And yet there are parts of it that work, or at least entertain.
Mary is a sympathetic heroine, in rebellion from the second we meet her and seeking a way out. Tracking her path through the novel sometimes seems like misery porn – she is constantly and violently tortured, and the way she interrogates and questions her world feels much too modern. The book is anti-bully and anti-prejudice, but its villains are thin and simplistic making it all too easy to understand why Mary rebels against authority, and why she is so ambivalent about her role as silently suffering wife. Bohjalian’s psychological portrait of the desperate, abused wife is interesting but doesn’t manage to pull together anything new.
I enjoyed Mary’s friendships with Peregrine and with her witchlike mentor. Her forbidden romance with Henry is decently handled, though there is nothing new about it.
And yet for all of Bohjalian’s research I still felt as though I was reading a cheesy action movie in book form at times. Mary even eventually dispatches a foe with a cheesy, Schwartzeneggerian kill line that is terribly awkward and will induce laughter in the reader. This modern feeling clashes with research that would have worked better with different choices. Narrative decisions like this keep Hour of the Witch from being anything over than an average read.