It was a time of epidemics, magical thinking, fearmongering, violence, vengeance, and the demonization of women who dare to speak out.
In a novel with eerie parallels to the present day, Alice Hoffman delivers “Magic Lessons,” the strongest in the trio of her novels about the Owens women, this one set in 17th-century England and America. “Magic Lessons” concerns a woman who barely escapes being hanged as a witch in Salem. It joins Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and more recently, Keija Parssinen’s “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis,” in exploring mass hysteria and witch hunts in artistic works.
Of course, in “Magic Lessons,” as in the other books in Hoffman’s magic series — “Practical Magic” and “The Rules of Magic” — the central character is not only a suspected witch but an actual one, with powers beyond everyday miracles. But here especially a witch is a woman who dares to speak her mind and to defy the strict conventions of her day.
The novel begins in 1664, in low-country England, when Hannah Owens finds a baby. Hannah is a practitioner of “green magic,” one who knows cures and remedies found in nature. She is also noteworthy for her ability to read and write, having been taught as an orphan working in a royal house as a scullery maid by the tutor of the family’s sons.
“This was true magic,” Hoffman writes, “the making and unmaking of the world with paper and ink.”
Hannah teaches the foundling baby, whom she names Maria, to read and write, and also, by her example, to help others. Maria’s fortune changes when her reckless biological mother, Rebecca, a “bloodline witch” with a crescent birthmark on her arm, arrives.
“As fate would have it, she brought the future with her,” Hoffman writes. Her future contains her past in the person of her biological father, a failed Shakespearean actor.
Not so attached to his newly acquainted daughter, he sells Maria in exchange for her boat passage to Curaçao. Once on the Caribbean island, she will work as a family’s indentured servant for five years. Toward the end of her servitude, at 15, she is seduced by 37-year-old John Hathorne, a successful trader from Massachusetts, arrived in this “land of oddities and miracles” for business.
Hathorne leaves after several days to return to his home in staid Salem. Maria has a baby out of wedlock, ending her indentured service. She gains passage, with her baby Faith, on a ship whose captain is a Sephardic Jew who escaped the Spanish Inquisition, and whose son Samuel is ill with what Maria recognizes as dengue fever. She uses the herbal knowledge she learned from Hannah to cure him. An open man and a talkative storyteller, Samuel falls in love with his healer, but Maria is determined to find the father of her baby.
John Hathorne was a historical figure, a magistrate and merchant who became one of the most famously relentless judges in the Salem witch trials. When Maria finds the fictional Hathorne in Salem, he exiles her to a hunting cabin in the woods with her baby, echoing “The Scarlet Letter,” written by the actual Hathorne’s great-great-grandson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added the "w" to his surname, perhaps to escape the infamy of his stern forbear.
Even though Maria and her baby are sidelined to the woods, she survives by making soap and carries herself proudly in the village. She is accused of being a witch, as much for living outside societal norms as anything else. She escapes the noose. The resourceful Samuel shows up at just the right moment. Despite her warnings about the Owens women and the curse that befalls the men who love them, Samuel “did not believe that love could ever be a curse.”
But the tests of Maria’s skill and wits — not to mention magical prowess — are far from over, and involve the challenges of maternal love, as her daughter Faith, at 13, flirts with a less benign kind of magic.
I have a longstanding interest in the Salem witch trials, as my husband’s ancestor, Sarah Averell Wilds, was one of the 19 people hanged as witches on Gallows Hill in Salem. Had she confessed her guilt, she might have been spared, but she insisted on her innocence till the end. The character Maria, likewise, is known as a woman who wasn’t cowed, remembering what Hannah once told her: “Own your own life.”
Alice Hoffman is the author of almost 30 adult novels, many marked by magic realism. The three Owens novels are not just tinged with magic but operate with full-on witchcraft: spells and charms, as well as herbal cures. Hoffman writes deftly, and often beautifully, about nature, and she can plot like, well, a witch, casting a spell on her reader to flip pages, reading ahead for plot twists. That said, the novel sometimes sags when Hoffman becomes enamored of her own research. The display of herbal lore and terminology, even for someone with an inherent interest, is at times heavy-handed.
Still, “Magic Lessons” is a compelling reminder of the past, which as it turns out, is not distant enough from the present.
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 396 pp., $27.99
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance book critic.