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Review: How to Hang a Witch

Review: How to Hang a Witch

Title: How to Hang a Witch
Author: Adriana Mather
Published: 2016
Length: 358 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ½

When fifteen-year-old Samantha Mather moves to Salem, Massachusetts, with her stepmother, she finds herself in a centuries-old feud with the Descendants: families whose direct ancestors were victims of the infamous Witch Hysteria of 1692. Sam, whose own ancestor Cotton Mather had a hand in the wich trials, is reported to be the cause of half a dozen deaths and accidents in the Descendants’ families and the school–and town–quickly turn against her. With the help of the spirit of a seventeenth-century boy named Elijah, she desperately seeks a way to break the curse, and to save her own comatose father,  before it’s too late.

If that sounds a little hokey, well…it is.

But the blurb of How to Hang a Witch hooked me. The Salem Witch Trials! Ghosts and (maybe) witches! New England in general! Unfortunately, the payoff just…wasn’t there. HTHAW had nothing going for it. The writing wasn’t awful, but its MC Sam is fifteen, and her first-person narration sounds fifteen–or what YA authors think fifteen-year-olds sound like: constant sass, whining, and italicized thoughts.

I made it to page 125 without feeling certain that I would (or could) continue. After that, the plot picked up a little; though it remained predictable and over-the-top, it at least got me turning pages, and no longer just to skip awkward, poorly-written scenes.

The author, Adriana Mather, is actually descended from Cotton Mather herself (much like Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter, she can trace her ancestry back to 1692-Salem). That’s cool and all, but it doesn’t make her a great author or even a particularly good storyteller. How to Hang a Witch has all the faults–but none of the charm or quality–of Conversion.

One of my main complaints about that novel was that the students knew almost nothing about the trials despite living and growing up in the town where they began. Conversely, in Mather’s version of Salem, everyone is obsessed with them. They live and breathe their town’s infamous past. Having been to Salem myself, I think that the witch thing is taken a bit over-the-top there. But in this fictionalized version, it’s completely unbelievable and absurd. Never mind getting though four hundred-plus years of history and prepping for the exam: Sam’s AP History class has a project, a paper, and a reenactment focusing solely on the witch trials, for God’s sake–in which the Descendants are forced (yes, forced) to play the parts of their ancestors! I just wanted the author to give me one small break.

This is also very much a fantasy book. So while I really, really love witchcraft in fiction, I’ll repeat this until I’m blue in the face: there were no witches in Salem in 1692. Nineteen innocent people were unjustly killed. Here, one of the accusers (rather than the accused) is portrayed as magical, but nonetheless, it sort of hurts the “fears of witchcraft in Puritan communities were completely unfounded yet led to the deaths of innocents” message to me. (At one point, Sam’s stepmother tells her that “Salem prides itself on its witches. That history is very real to the people who live here.” So, a little louder for the people in the back: there were! No! Witches! In seventeenth-century Salem! I don’t know when creators are going to seriously acknowledge that–I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling, with your “Salem Witches Institute” or whatever–but I hope it’s soon.)

The overall message, as explained in Mather’s author’s note, is actually more sound than that of Conversion: that bullying can quickly get out-of-hand and become dangerous, just as the witchcraft accusations did in 1692. But what happens to Sam in this book is way beyond bullying. Everyone treats her like dirt with the exceptions of her kindly neighbors and Elijah, who isn’t even alive. That includes the adults who should be shielding her from the blatant harassment she faces from day one. Instead, they treat her like a dangerous, mentally unstable person who can’t be allowed to have any freedom or agency. I didn’t connect much with Sam, and she didn’t always help her own bad situation, but the injustice of it all made me want to scream (never mind how unrealistic it all was).

There were other things I liked. Ms. Mather did manage to create a good atmosphere, even if the writing itself is pretty weak. The witchcraft elements are done nicely as well, though as I discussed before, I wasn’t thrilled about the inclusion of them in this particular story and setting. I liked the kinds of potions and spells Mather dreamed up–that they use all native New England plants was an especially nice touch.

The characters, though, are flat and forgettable at best, annoying and cringey at worst. Sam sort of grew on me in the last fifty pages or so, and the ghost, Elijah, is easily the most interesting and unique of the entire cast, but neither are enough to salvage a book full of cardboard cutouts whose personalities are constructed of cliches–when they have them at all. Also, there’s a love triangle because reasons. I have nothing against ghostly love interests in principle, but that angle is hard to pull off in the best of stories, so it really falls flat on its face here. None of the relationships seem very organic, actually, just forced and phoned-in.

Cliche characters, mediocre writing, stilted dialogue, and a predictable plot combine to rob How to Hang a Witch of most of its potential. It’s forgettable despite having a premise that appeared promising. There are better YA witch books (Once a Witch, for instance) and better YA Salem Witch Trails-centered books, which ultimately makes this one feel superfluous.

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