Many fans of Alice Hoffman‘s Practical Magic series have no doubt wanted more on the origins of the Owens women. Magic Lessons (Simon & Schuster) gives fans what they crave and will satisfy lovers of folk medicine, witchcraft and history. But even more importantly, Hoffman’s novel gives readers a look into 1600s politics, religion and societal issues that eerily parallel a 2020 America.
It’s a captivating read filled with twists and turns as we follow Maria Owens from Essex County, England — where she is found, named and raised by practicing witch Hannah Owens — to tropical island Curaçao, and then to colonial America. Readers who are magic practitioners will recognize familiar spells and magical herbs along with the names of real texts such as The Sworn Book of Honorius, a supposed grimoire written by Pope Honorius. The novel abounds with common folk remedies, teas and foods.
Some characters in Magic Lessons are real figures in history, such as Matthew Hopkins, self-nominated witchfinder general in Essex County, England; John Hathorne, magistrate of the Salem during the Salem Witch trials; and the first Jewish settler in New Amsterdam (New York City), Jacob Barsimson. Mentions of various battles, campaigns (for instance the mass killing of the Lenape Native Americans) and plagues also lend a very authentic air to this fictional tale.
A HISTORICAL NOVEL WITH A MESSAGE FOR TODAY’S WORLD
But while some will pick up this book just because it is a prequel to the best-selling novel Practical Magic, that is not its only appeal. Though its language is poetic, and its intrigue of magic rooted in real history will have readers interested, what makes this newest Hoffman piece the most engaging is its timeliness.
So, what does a novel set in the late 1600s have to say to us in 2020? Plenty. The biggest focus of Magic Lessons is its treatment of women. While Hoffman makes it clear how few of her characters are witches, she also shows how many women were persecuted and thought to be witches and why. Women who were independent, owned their own land, who could read and write — these were the women at risk of being accused of witchery. The real persecution and oppression of women in England and America extend for generations.
The recent passing of Justice Ginsberg recalled how many liberties she helped to grant in her lifetime and reading Magic Lessons only brings her achievements in women’s equality into sharper focus. Also on display in the novel are the persecution of Jews, slavery and servitude, and the genocide of Native Americans by colonial settlers. The divisions Americans see today along racial, political and religious lines have been a stain on our history since America’s inception.
But the one theme that rises above all others in Magic Lessons is the power of love. Hoffman shows her readers through Maria’s life and loves that despite persecution, division and ignorance, love will make us better if we let it. By the end, Maria — and all of us — will come to realize that “love is the only answer.”