A haunting book about…ghosts! and witches. (rated 4/5)
This is a review of How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather – yes, one of those Mathers. It was released July 26, 2016 by Knopf. I read the whole thing in one night in about 5 hours, which is a kind of review in itself.
How to Hang a Witch is the story of Samantha Mather, a descendant of Cotton Mather – the man considered to be one of the key instigators in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. By unfortunate circumstance, Samantha is forced to move to Salem with her stepmom – a town she’s never been to despite having an ancestral home and family history there. Samantha has also spent most of her life dogged by bad luck and existing in social isolation. Things don’t change much once she starts school in Salem and meets the Descendants – the children descended from the people hanged in the original trials; on top of that, she’s seeing a ghost and her bad luck is worse than ever. Digging through her family history, her grandmother’s journals, and even finding a way to reach out to the Descendants, Samantha realizes there is more than just a metaphorical curse on the town. The curse is real, and deadly. Samantha knows she needs to break the curse, she just needs to piece together her family’s history to save their future. With the help of actual ghost Elijah, living boy-next-door Jaxon, and Jaxon’s mother, she might just save Salem.
I came by this book in a rather interesting way. And it involves Harry Potter.
On July 31, 2016 I, like many of my fellow Potterheads, was at a store for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When you have an hour and a half to hang out in a bookstore, you have to be judicious in which books you choose to buy or you walk out broke. I actually did not buy HP and the CC in the store that night as I had already pre-ordered it, I was mostly there to hang out with my friend.
I saw How to Hang a Witch and was immediately intrigued, even more so when I saw that the author shared a last name with one of the more infamous people involved in the Salem Witch Trials. I went right to Mather’s bio on the back flap and when I learned she was an actual descendant of Cotton Mather, my interest was piqued before I’d even read the summary. A lot of people can sympathize with feeling like you have to live up to your last name or your family history, but being a Mather is quite a weight. I did not end up buying How to Hang a Witch that night, but the title and the concept followed me. I was haunted by the book before I even read it. I did buy other books that night, but I don’t regret not picking up this one.
Because of How to Hang a Witch and Adriana Mather, I joined the local library in my new town. My husband and I have only been living here a few months, and when I saw the library had this on its shelves, it was the sign I needed that it was time to hit the library. Libraries are amazing resources in our communities and supporting them is essential to increasing literacy, education, and community engagement. If you aren’t a member of your local library, I suggest joining ASAP. There are so many activities going on that allow you to meet new people and fellow book lovers.
So last night I went to the library, got the book, and started reading immediately. I started at about 7:00pm and finished just before midnight. It was worth being sleepy today to read this book in a giant gulp.
First and foremost, Samantha is likable and real. While she acknowledges she’s sarcastic, she’s also sympathetic. Few people in her life are nice to her, she’s been bullied by her peers and adults alike, and her parental support is nil or questionable; she’s hesitant to trust anyone and it’s clear with few flashbacks or much explanation that she has been deeply hurt by the people around her. And in spite of that, she’s hopeful and kind at her core. Samantha wants to do the right thing regardless of what that means for her. Unlike many of the other characters in the story, she’s deeply horrified by the Witch Trials, rather than fascinated or amused. The more she researches the persecution and falsity of the trials themselves, the more her true character is revealed. She sees that not much has changed from 1692 to today. I was a bit concerned when Mather wrote Samantha as klutzy, but was relieved when her lack of coordination did not render her incapable, or constantly in need of saving.
All of the characters are fairly well rounded and layered – except for a few very minor characters, I feel like I know more than just the surface level about the majority of them. I know what makes them tick, why they hurt, and what they are capable of for good or evil. At the start of the story, Samantha’s mother is dead and her father is absent (spoilers!) and yet I feel that I knew them.
The story itself has some genuinely, skin-creeping, spine-tingling scares and I knew it was one of those books I needed to finish in a sitting or I’d have scary dreams (that is definitely a compliment.) It’s not a happy story, and it explores some of the darkest parts of human nature. This is absolutely a story about humanity’s darkness, as well as a story about what it takes to overcome it.
The theme and the resolution gets a little jumbled toward the end – I won’t share any spoilers, but I will say that it got a bit messy when Samantha was trying to figure out messages from her ancestor and what it took to break the curse. I wasn’t sure where the story was going at that point, but I was satisfied in the end. While you see one of the bigger twists coming when you get close – a moment that kind of reminded me of the Beldam in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – it did not go quite as I expected, and stayed very much true to the core messages of kindness and love in a way not many YA books with this much action would.
There’s a lot of complaining at the moment about the habit of YA love triangles, and I won’t deny How to Hang a Witch has the general shape of a triangle when it comes to romance. However, the love triangle is ultimately a subplot, and it’s not hard to figure out that one side of the triangle isn’t really a side. Samantha spends little page time thinking about her relationships or romantic feelings – like a true, well-rounded human, she has bigger fish to fry (or should I say, witches to hang?) than her relationship status.
Ultimately, I give How to Hang a Witch 4/5 for the excellent characters, atmospheric and relevant story, but one star off for the slightly jumbled ending. It’s a scary, emotional ride and would be a PERFECT book for the month of October. This is definitely a new ghost in my mental bookshelf, and I will be recommending it to others.