Adriana Mather, How to Hang a Witch, Walker Books Australia, 1 January 2018, 384pp., $16.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781406378795
Samantha and her stepmother, Vivian, move from New York to Salem, her father’s hometown. He is hospitalised, in a coma. Vivian has sold their New York apartment and they are to live in Samantha’s father’s childhood home. When they arrive their neighbour and her son, Mrs Meriwether and Jaxon, greet them. They have prepared the house and make them feel welcome. They are about the only people in Salem to make them feel welcome, as Samantha, known as Sam, is a descendant of Cotton Mather. He was heavily involved in the Witch Trials and a very complex man. Sam is shunned at school from the moment she arrives; the only person willing to help and support her is Jaxon. The Descendants, a small group whose ancestors were killed during the trials, are in the same classes as Sam, which proves to be more than a little difficult. Sam is a fighter however, having been in this position most of her life, as bad things happen to people close to her. The curse she suspected she is inflicted with is becoming more real, and when people start dying, Sam must try and work with the Descendants to break the curse, thus breaking the cycle of deaths. She only has one person whom she can fully trust, and throughout the entire novel the reader is in doubt as to the honesty of all other characters, including Jaxon.
This is an intriguing novel. Adriana Mather is the fourteenth generation of Mathers in America and Cotton was the third. The author’s note at the back of the book explains much of the origins of the story. This story is not biographical, but the history and some elements are compellingly correct. Without giving too much away, there are aspects of the narrative that are purely fictional, adding a suspenseful element.
How to Hang a Witch is a fascinating read. I have an interest in the Salem Witch Trials, although my knowledge on the topic is sparse. This book motivates me to find out more. The silences surrounding such persecutions, and the public following of this popular belief, are not far removed from society today. This is not lost on the reader. “Group silence can be a death sentence. It was in Salem” (page 218). The characterisation is well rounded and there are complex, likeable and unlikeable characters throughout. Sam is a strong, independent young woman. The narrative has excellent pacing. It slows when it needs to, and picks up dramatically in all the right places. The last 100 pages are gripping and I found it extremely hard to put down for even a few minutes.
Reviewed by Liz Derouet