Widely disparate strands of New World history converge in this fiction from de Alba (Desert Blood, 2005, etc.) about a young Mexican woman who surmounts one cruelty after another only to find herself accused of witchcraft in 17th-century Boston.
Concepción is born in Mexico to a mixed-race mother and highborn Spanish father. After escaping the monastery where she’s learned fine penmanship as an indentured servant, Concepción is captured by pirates headed to New England. The pirate captain rapes her repeatedly before selling her as a slave to Boston merchant Nathaniel Greenwood, who renames her Thankful Seagraves. He wants Concepción to run his aging father-in-law Tobias’s chicken farm. Greenwood’s wife Rebecca quickly realizes Concepción is pregnant. Rebecca, who exhibits both selfishness and the capacity for love, successfully nurses Concepción through her difficult pregnancy because she wants Concepción’s child for herself. Concepción names her new baby Jerónima but Rebecca calls her Hanna and the name sticks. When Tobias, gruff but learned and not unkind, marries Concepción, she becomes a free woman. While her life grows relatively easy, she finds herself in a losing battle for her daughter’s affection. Hanna refuses to learn Spanish, is as hostile to Concepción’s Catholicism as any good little Puritan and calls Rebecca “Mama Becca” from an early age. Eventually Hanna chooses to live most of the week with Rebecca’s family. When the witch scare erupts, Concepción is accused and imprisoned. Tobias supports her, but Hanna gladly testifies against her. Although Concepción survives the witch trials until they peter out, Hanna has broken her heart. She knows she has no future in Boston. With money left her by the now-deceased Tobias, she boards a ship to the West Indies disguised as a man. Years later, Hanna reads the letters Concepción left behind and learns her history.
The heroic, victimized Concepción feels engineered, but de Alba’s Puritans are as rich and complex as any characters in recent historical fiction.