Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel is a legal thriller set in an era with seemingly little in common with our own: the perilous world of 17th-century New England. But through a young Puritan woman’s attempts to divorce her abusive husband, Bohjalian explores how the sexism, shame and rampant gossip of the early American colonies are eerily persistent to this day.
What inspired you to write a novel of suspense set in 17th-century New England?
My work—at least my best work—is powered by dread. My books are slow burns. It’s not “action” in a conventional sense that keeps readers turning the pages, but rather a simmering anxiety.
And many of the Puritans lived with anxiety and dread: Satan was as real as your neighbor and they fretted constantly over whether they were saved or damned.
Now, when we think of New England’s history of hanging people for witchcraft, we beeline straight to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. But in 1656, the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch. And the first real witch hunt was Hartford, Connecticutt, in 1662—three full decades before Salem.
One thing many of the women executed as witches had in common was that they were smart, opinionated and viewed as outsiders; sometimes, they saw through the patriarchal hypocrisy that marked a lot of New England Puritanism.
I was looking for a way into a novel of suspense set in the 17th century, but one that I hoped would chart new ground. I came across a reference in the records of Boston’s Court of Assistants from 1672: A woman named Nanny Naylor successfully sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. And I was off and running.
The way Mary and those around her think is very different when compared to a modern reader’s perspective. For example, Mary is always looking for signs from God or the devil. How did you get into the mindset of a 17th-century Puritan?
I’ve been interested in Puritan theology and the Puritan mind since college. I still have many of the books I read for classes then.
The Puritans kept diaries and ledgers, and those were important to me, because they used them to try and see if they were likely saved or damned.
Moreover, as stern and cruel and condescending as the Puritans could be, there were moments when they understood the inherent beauty of the world. They were not joyless. (They sure loved their beer.) My favorite example of this is the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet, along with Emily Dickinson, has been a muse for me since college, and her 17th-century legacy includes love poems to her husband, wrenching testimonies to loss and meditations on faith and doubt.
"When you spend your life wondering if you are damned or saved, you are constantly looking for signs."
One of the catalysts for the novel’s central conflict was, of all things, the importation of forks. Did the Puritans really consider them tools of the devil? How did you discover this?
I was preparing some short remarks years ago about the first Thanksgiving for my daughter’s elementary school, and I came across a passage in George Francis Dow’s Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that noted the Puritans did not use forks. They used knives and spoons and their fingers. When I embarked upon this novel, I recalled that tidbit and it led me down one of those great research rabbit holes.
By the mid-17th century, the three-tined fork was starting to gain favor in Europe. But it seems that the earliest “eating" forks found at New England archeological sites date from the early 1700s. The derivation of the word “fork,” of course, comes from “pitchfork,” and some scholars have argued that the implement had trouble gaining traction in New England because of its resemblance to the devil’s pitchfork. (The early forks were terrifying!)
Now, how many Puritans actually viewed them as the Devil’s Tines? I have no idea. But if you live in a world where Satan is an almost tangible presence? A three-tined fork is a great tool to make part of a spell.
I was struck by how, despite living more than 350 years ago, Mary’s struggle to escape an abusive marriage and her patriarchal upbringing still felt similar to stories we hear today. Do you think the power structures that kept Mary confined have changed that much?
In some ways, the Puritans were more progressive than we give them credit for. They viewed marriage as a civil ceremony and a wife who was granted a divorce from her husband was granted one-third of his estate. (I’m not saying one-third is fair, only that it is more than you might have expected.) At least 31 times, Puritan marriages ended in divorce.
But, of course, it was an inherently sexist culture. Exhibit A? It was a heck of a lot easier to get yourself hanged as a witch if you were female. In some ways, the culture defined toxic masculinity.
And just as today the burden of proof seems to fall unfairly on women so often that we actually need an #IBelieveHer movement, it was very difficult in the 17th century for a woman to win a dispute in a “he said/she said” confrontation. Of those 31 divorces, only one was for cruelty—what today we would call domestic abuse.
Yes, Hour of the Witch is set in 1662, but (by design) it is among the more timely novels I have written. I am confident most readers will get the reference when a member of Boston’s all-male Court of Assistants calls my heroine, Mary Deerfield, “a nasty woman.”
Why do you think the Puritans were so obsessed with witchcraft?
Because Satan and Hell and predestination were fixtures in their worldview. When you spend your life wondering if you are damned or saved, you are constantly looking for signs.
Moreover, how do you explain the tragedies that were part of their daily existence? The death and the disease and the accidents that left you disabled? Part of their answer was the devil and his human acolytes.
Mary’s concept of good and evil shifts dramatically throughout the novel. Is this born of necessity or of her world expanding or both?
My novels are character studies. It is character that interests me.
The great teacher of writing (and novelist and short story writer) John Gardner taught us that among the points that matter most in fiction is character transformation. And so I hope my characters change in the course of a story. And Mary Deerfield’s journey is certainly a tale of growth.
Part of this novel is a legal thriller. How did you research the complex legal system Mary finds herself tangled up in?
The Puritans didn’t have court stenographers, but they were avid record-keepers.
I hope the trial proceedings and the way a trial would have been conducted is fundamentally accurate. I had the great good fortune of becoming friends with L. Kinvin Wroth, professor emeritus of law at Vermont Law School. We first had lunch in the summer of 2001—20 years ago—when I reached out to him to discuss the novel I was contemplating about a Puritan woman’s attempt to divorce her husband. He pointed out to me the articles it was critical I read about 17th-century law and the first New England courts. He read a draft of the novel and patiently corrected my most egregious mistakes. I will always recall fondly our lunches over the decades in South Royalton, Vermont.
The power of gossip is very different in Mary’s life than it would be in the present day. How did the closeness of her community present a threat to her while still enabling the colony to survive?
The Puritans didn’t have Twitter, but they did have the whipping post and the stocks. They sure as heck weren’t slackers when it came to public shaming. And they depended to a large degree on people’s fear of shame to moderate their behavior (as if the fires of hell weren’t enough) and to keep order.
I find it interesting that both witchcraft and adultery were capital crimes, but no was ever executed for adultery.
Author photo © Victoria Blewe.