A historical novel of psychological suspense explores 17th-century New England.
Freemartin’s (The Cult of Scorpio, 2015, etc.) work opens in 1680 in Greenwood Village, a small Massachusetts Bay Colony town near enough to Boston to buy city fineries but far enough away to seem most often like an alien world. Judith Temple, the town’s midwife and apothecary, is an unconventional, free-spirited woman who has taken in as her apprentice a 10-year-old Native American orphan she names Vigory. They form one of the book’s narrative focal points. Judith and Vigory are outsiders to the strict and sometimes borderline-hysterical religious conservatism of the town, a Cotton Mather-style righteousness that’s spearheaded by Harriet Browne, the wife of the village’s constable. Freemartin portrays the relationship between Judith and Vigory with subtle compassion as a blend of teacher-student and mother-daughter (“Vigory attacked all Judith taught her with vigor; she did everything with a serious and vigorous sincerity, from eating to working, to those rare moments of play that children in the colony can find between harvest and planting season”). This stands in stark contrast to the twisted combination of hatred and abuse that Harriet feels for her grossly overweight daughter, Miriam. When Harriet declares that Greenwood should undergo a fast to recover God’s grace and her own daughter rebels, the tension festers into a cloud of psychological gloom that should be familiar to any student of the Salem witch trials. In this complex and insightful tale, Miriam remains the strangest and most striking character (“You could get lost following the expansive curves of her body, every line always radiating away from the core, the center of her being”). Her behavior becomes increasingly peculiar, and the town is visited with torrents of rain, an infestation of frogs, and other woes that lend themselves readily to supernatural explanations. Freemartin propels this plot forward with a sure hand and a sharp, knowing ear for revealing dialogue. Her powers of imagery are strong throughout (about Boston: its streets were “laid out like poorly set bones”). And the novel’s climax, which might seem overwrought in less skillful hands, is instead hold-your-breath gripping.
A dark and compelling tale of violence and dementia in colonial Massachusetts, with an unforgettable young girl at the heart of it all.