Continuing with the posting of reviews written by readers who took up The Book Review Challenge, today our review is from Barb. She blogs at http://barbtaub.com/
Barb chose to read “The Black Hours” by Alison Williams.
Here is Barb’s review.
In the three years of his short career as Witchfinder General from 1644 to 1647, young Matthew Hopkins was directly responsible for the deaths of over three hundred women. What author Alison Williams wants to know is not what happened or even how or why. What she sets out to examine in The Black Hours is who. Who were the murdered women, who were their accusers, and even who was the young man who became the Witchfinder?
She introduces us to a tiny English village, Coggeshall, where seventeen-year-old Alice Pendle lives with her Grandmother Maggie—Margaret Prentice, the village healer. Against the polarizing backdrop of religious and political divisions of the Civil War, witch-hunters claiming to have grants of safe conduct travel the Puritan and Parliamentarian strongholds. They are accompanied by women who administer witch tests such as “pricks” —needle piercings, often faked—to “prove” accusations of witchcraft, an often lucrative career financed by frightened local officials.
When Maggie and Alice are suspected of witchcraft, we see the proceedings from several points of view. Their neighbors—by turns vindictive, bullied, righteous, or frightened—are the accusers. Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins is secure in his belief that he is fulfilling his religious duty, contemptuous of the simple villagers who don’t immediately follow his commands, and self-righteously determined to fight the devil he sees in basically everyone except himself. He has no hesitation in ordering their arrest, torture, and trial. But there are others who don’t give up, who are willing to fight against what they believe is unjust.
What makes The Black Hours so interesting to me is the unusual choice to alternate point of view between the victims and their accuser. Alice’s story is difficult to read in places, as she’s subjected to assault, torture, deprivation, and loss. But it is also one of triumph, a quiet individual victory. With the perfect hindsight vision of history, we want to see the Witchfinder as a monster, his victims as powerless pawns, his allies as weakminded minions. But what we get instead are strong women who fight what they see as the sin of false confession. We see a weak, increasingly sick young man who has no real grasp of the events he thinks he’s orchestrating. And most interesting of all, we see the neighbors. Not only are there the malicious or easily manipulated accusers, but there are those who become increasingly infuriated by the abomination perpetrated against their families and friends. If there are victors or triumphs in this story, and if there is a message, it is that these everyday people are inherently good, and eventually victorious.
There is so much I found fascinating in this story. Alison Williams gave us an amazingly detailed description of everyday seventeenth century lives, with meticulous research and beautiful descriptions of people and places. But more than that, she made me think about so many other witch hunts throughout history. Like Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, it serves as a parable for political witch hunts such as McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s infamous hearings that led to the blacklisting of the anti-Communist purge of the American film and media industry.
Seeing the way the Witchfinder is eventually discredited by those he confidently bullied reminds me of CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow’s challenge to McCarthyism. “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrines and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.”
Because she made me think, because she wrote a challenging and entertaining book, and because she succeeded in bringing a difficult historical page to life, I would give five out of five stars to The Black Hours