Hour of the Witch: Good Seasonal Read, though Flawed



By Chris Bohjalian

Doubleday, 406 pages.

★★★ ½


Chris Bohjalian offers a spooky treat that makes good Halloween reading. Hour of the Witch and its characters are fictional, but the dilemmas he describes are not. Although the North American colonies paled in comparison to Europe where at least 40,000 people were executed for witchcraft, 26 or more people met their ends after being convicted of consorting with Satan and scores of others were accused.


 Hour of the Witch is set in Salem, but in the 1660s, decades before its infamous 1692 witch trials. The latter overly compress a much wider phenomenon. (The first American “witch” was hanged* in 1647.) It seems incredible today, but as Bohjalian writes, “It was always possible that the Devil was present.” Even Mary Deerfield believed that, she being the central figure in Bojhalian’s novel. Mary is beautiful and handy with herbal cures and midwifery, but her world was dominated by men to whom she was expected to be compliant and subservient. That includes her husband, Thomas. At 24, Mary is his second wife and acquires a step-daughter, Peregrine, who is her age. Thomas is 45, but Mary is blamed for not getting pregnant. It doesn’t help that Peregrine already has two children and another on the way. Nor is it a good thing that Mary befriends Constance Winston, an unmarried older woman who isn’t a church member and provisions Mary with some of her “simples” (remedies).


Even if you’ve not made an exhaustive study of the pre-scientific world of Colonial America, you probably know it didn’t take much to upset the fragile Puritan worldview. How does one explain a cow that suddenly goes dry, unexpected deaths, a garden that withers when a neighbor’s thrives, freak accidents, barrenness, strange markings, or poppets? In a world so fraught, even the importation of three-pronged forks disrupts a community in which gossip, grudges, and fear dominate.


A fork plays a part in Mary’s woes. Her father is an important merchant in Salem and it was he who received some forks in a shipment from England. He gives one to Mary, but this being New England, not Olde, some locals see the humble table implement as the “Devil’s tines.” Mary’s marriage is also a shambles. Thomas is a bully who drinks too much, subjects her to rough sex, and repeatedly “corrects” (beats) her. In one drunken outburst he drives the fork into her hand and breaks it. These acts prompt Mary to seek divorce from Thomas. I won’t go into historical detail; let’s just say that very few women were granted divorce in the 17th century. Mary’s lawsuit, though (mostly) supported by her birth family, sets tongues a-clacking.


Bohjalian introduces chapters with “documents” (most are made up) pursuant to Mary’s divorce and subsequent witchcraft trials. Mary forges a unique strategy to defend herself. Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy (a religion-based government) in which the line between pulpit, courts, and authority often overlapped. Because ministers hold power, Mary knows she needs clerical allies. What rulings are appropriate for a woman with a reputation for piety?


It is at this juncture that Bohjalian oversteps both history and credulity. Whilst Mary is estranged from Thomas, she develops a lustful infatuation for another man and isn’t very good at hiding it. (At least Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne had the wisdom to tryst in the woods!) Mind, this is during a time local wags and those with vested reasons to hate her insist she’s a witch. The novel’s resolution goes a step further down I-Don’t-Think-So Lane. It’s lifted from a folksong (Child Ballad 95) and might be how we’d like things to go down, but not how they actually did. It’s fictionl, so Bohjalian can invent and imagine to his heart’s content, but there is a great tonal inconsistency in leaping from the legalistic and religious to a swashbuckling caper.


Hour of the Witch is a decent read, for the season, though I doubt this will be remembered as one of Bohjalian’s best. There is no surfeit of witchcraft novels and, let’s face it, a one-off from Bohjalian isn’t going to dethrone Alice Hoffman from her roost as the queen of witchcraft fiction. If you’ve not already done so, you might want to read her Magic Lessons as a companion to Hour of the Witch.


Rob Weir


* Contrary to common belief, no witches were burnt in the Americas.


Judy Collins: Artist of the Month October 2021




Earlier this month I signed up to usher a Judy Collins concert. Given that she’s 82 years old, I did so with some trepidation. I’ve been listening to Judy blue eyes since the 1960s—yes, the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was written in her honor—and I know that Old Man Time can be cruel to singers. He stole Linda Ronstadt’s voice and reduced Pete Seeger to a croak, a descriptor that would be charitable if applied to 76-year-old Stephen Stills. Joni Mitchell is five years younger than Collins and you are unlikely ever again to hear her on the stage.




Imagine the delight at being able to write this line: Judy Collins still sings like an angel. Unless you ascribe to the theory that she met the Devil at the crossroads and traded her soul for the ability to sing, a lucky roll of the genetic dice is the only possible explanation. It would be facile to say that she sounds as good as she ever did, but her voice is to agelessness what Catherine Deneuve’s body is to the human figure.


Collins performed a 90-minute set at Northampton’s Academy of Music in which she transformed the theatre into an intimate living room in which she held court with song and story. As you might imagine from one whose career began in 1959, Collins has quite a collection of tales to tell, though most of them are slice-of-life amusing rather than slash-and-burn slams. She recounted a few stories about those she has known well: Seeger, Dylan, Eric Anderson, Leonard Cohen, Sandy Denny, Willie Nelson, Stephen Sondheim, and others.


It hasn’t all been roses. Her 1958 marriage to Peter A. Taylor ended in divorce in 1965 and their only child, Clark committed suicide in 1992 at age 33. She has been candid about this, her bout with smoking, and struggles to overcome TB and bulimia. She also had high-profile relationships with actor Stacy Keach, singer John Phillips, TV personality Geraldo Rivera, and Stephen Stills before beginning a relationship with fashion designer Louis Nelson in 1978. (They married in 1996.) I suppose by the standards of the day, this makes Collins practically a saint!


Music, though, has always been at the fore of Collins’ life. Curmudgeons sometimes dismiss Collins. She has raised ire by covering so many Dylan songs, though why you’d want to hear his vocals over hers is beyond me; the clarity of Collins’ tones are unparalleled.  She’s seldom a grit-and-drama performer, though she’s a first-class interpreter other people’s compositions. Two of her biggest hits, “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning” were penned by Joni Mitchell at a time when Collins was a far bigger star than Mitchell. Collins’ career speaks for itself: 28 solo albums, 4 of which went gold and two others that rose to platinum. In addition to her folk and pop offerings, she has also interpreted Stephen Sondheim songs–he won a Grammy thanks to her cover of “Send in the Clowns”–other show tunes, popularized Leonard Cohen offerings, and was practically a one-woman Jacques Brel revival machine. I’m not ashamed to say that her 1975 album Judith is among my all-time favorites.


At the Academy of Music show, Collins stuck to her folk repertoire. For most of the show she stood front and center with her 12-string guitar and was accompanied by a pianist. Later, she plopped down on the bench and, as one who was schooled in Mozart, proved she knows her way around the ivories. She was especially adroit at lush arpeggios–perfect for spotlighting her ability to ascend and descend the scales. It was also the right tool for one of her own superb compositions, “The Blizzard,” a song so beautiful it aches. My only beef is this: Lose the baroque wig!


Here is a list of my ten all-time favorite Collins recordings, in alphabetical order. My first brainstorm had twice as many titles, so if you ask me tomorrow, I might have a different list.


·      “The Blizzard” – It turns winter and trust into magic

·      “Both Sides Now” –Cover that arguably made Mitchell a household name

·      “Houses” – One of her own, orchestral and lovely

·      “Last Thing on My Mind” –Early recording that gave boost to Tom Paxton

·      “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” – Deeply moving Jimmy Webb cover

·      Rainbow Connection” –Not even Kermit can sing it better!

·      “Send in the Clowns” –No bloody wonder Sondheim won a Grammy

·      “Silver Skies Blue” –This is what Collins sounds like in her 80s

·      “Suzanne” – Leonard Cohen classic, but who’d you rather hear sing it?

·      “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”– I heard this before I knew of Sandy Denny and am forever grateful to Collins for the introduction


Rob Weir





Hamnet as Hamlet? Gadzooks!



By Maggie O’Farrell

Alfred Knopf, 384 pages.




Hamnet is an imaginative but historically suspect look at what inspired William Shakespeare to write “Hamlet.” In Maggie O'Farrell’s retelling, “Hamlet”–a recognized alternative spelling of Hamnet–was Shakespeare's attempt to expiate his guilt over the death of his 11-year-old son and his dereliction of family duties. In essence, his grief over young Hamnet’s demise was projected upon Prince Hamlet, with William playing the role of the paternal ghost. Some of Shakespeare's dysfunctional birth family dynamics were similarly transferred to the play.


In the interest of full disclosure, I remind readers that I am no fan of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. I find Shakespeare stilted, overly wordy, and long to see his plays rewritten in modern English. I did, however, hold high hope that the novel would pique my interest. Had it truly been a plague novel, that might've been the case. Instead, Hamnet is an anachronistic feminist tale glued onto dodgy psychology.


Here's what we know. The historical Hamnet died in 1596, though the cause of death isn’t listed in any known records. He could have died of the plague, as the Black Death still flared in the late 16th century. It’s equally plausible, though, that Hamnet died of something completely different. Sadly, the death of children was commonplace in an age when the average lifespan was just 43. (Shakespeare was a relative elder when he died in 1616, at the age of 52.)


We also know that Shakespeare’s parents were severe people and that his glovemaker father John was reputed to be a harsh and bigoted man. Not much is known of William’s wife Agnes Hathaway–often known as “Anne” Hathaway–other than she was the daughter of a yeoman and his first wife. In Hamnet, Shakespeare's family are uppity tyrants and that of Agnes a template for simple rural virtues. Both family portraits are feasible, though speculative.


It is also factual that as Shakespeare rose in renown, he spent less time in Stratford and more in London. O’Farrell’s take is that his fine Stratford home–by 16th century standards–was more for show than his personal comfort. That too is within the realm of possibility. Such homes were markers of bourgeois respectability.


O’Farrell’s greatest strength lies with her command of the details of everyday life in the late 16th century. We learn a lot about tending gardens, wildcrafting, the din of the marketplace, what it was like to prepare food in Shakespeare’s day, and even the social role of cats in Elizabethan England. There's also a succinct and believable account of how plague fleas traveled from monkeys to Alexandria and made their way to Warwickshire via Venice, Cadiz, and London.


O’Farrell is a novelist, and we expect her to take liberty with some details. This comes with risks when applied to a figure as revered as William Shakespeare, but there are enough holes in his biography to allow for invention. It's tricky, though, to write 21st century-style feminism into a novel set more than three centuries earlier. Moreover, the title is a misnomer, as it’s more about Agnes and Hamnet’s twin Judith than either the namesake character or the plague. O’Farrell would have it that Hamnet made a bargain with God to take him rather than his beloved sister, and that Agnes was driven first to madness and then to deep resentment toward her husband. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows?


I was wholly unconvinced by O’Farrell’s plot device of having Agnes make a secretive journey from Stratford to London to watch “Hamlet,” and conclude that grief triggered in William a dual psychological transference. She allegedly sees, “her Hamnet as he might have been, had he lived, and the ghost, who has her husband's hands, her husband’s beard, who speaks her husband's voice." Methinks O’Farrell hath gotten too modern, a problem that also emerges in Agnes’ newfound but non-16th century independence.


Shakespeare aficionados will like this book. So too will those who engage in the Shakespeare-denier cottage industry and long to see him taken him down a few cloak pegs. If you are neither, you can join me in the shrug brigade.


Rob Weir