Firmly based on fact, Weave a Web of Witchcraft tells the story of Hugh Parsons, a man accused of witchcraft by his wife Mary and tried in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1652.
The novel begins in England with fifteen-year-old Hugh reluctantly beginning an apprenticeship as a brickmaker. This has been arranged by his father because although Hugh loves his father’s farm he has no future there as the farm will pass to Hugh’s older brother when his father dies. By the time his apprenticeship is completed, times are hard and trouble is brewing between King and Parliament. Hearing that the colony of New England has need of tradesmen, Hugh decides to take his chances there. Arriving at Boston in 1641, he is shocked by what he sees.
A ramshackle row of wooden buildings ran the length of a narrow, crooked street. Town, he thought in disgust, ’tis naught but a cluster of hovels. The poorest farmer in Gosberton had a sturdier house than this lot. He had a sickening sense he’d just made the greatest mistake of his life. (pp. 25-26)
But at the same time, Hugh realizes that this might be to his advantage as there is not a single brick building in Boston.
He settles in Springfield and is granted a plot of land which he attempts to farm as well as building a house and making bricks that are used, initially, to pay off the cost of his passage. He works hard and, by 1645, with his land, the house he has built house and his brick kiln, he thinks it is time he married and settles on Mary Lewis, a Welsh servant. Even before the marriage Mary is a puzzle, sometimes bold and encouraging, other times pushing Hugh away. Even on the day that they are married her complaints begin when Hugh proudly shows her around his house, the house he has worked hard to improve for her arrival.
She looked around once more. ‘I should have stayed with the Clarks, I was better off as a servant,’ she said, with the toss of her head, ‘at least they kept me warm and well fed.’ (p. 63)
The novel traces their life in Springfield and what ultimately brings them to the point where Mary accuses Hugh of witchcraft. It details the hardships and the unremitting work of these early settlers as well as their struggles against the elements. Woven through this is their interactions with other members of their community, the community spirit and cooperation alongside the rigidness of belief, the narrowness of their lives, the inevitable dissensions, gossip and backbiting, clearly establishing the fertile soil in which accusations of witchcraft can flourish.
The natural environment, particularly the countryside surrounding Springfield, is beautifully described. The novel is told in the third person from various points of view. The main characters are clearly drawn but it is not possible to fully sympathize with either Hugh or Mary. Hugh is not an easy man, hot tempered and at times verbally abusive, with an eye on his own advancement and not much sympathy for the lot of others. Sometimes a gentler approach and an ounce of compassion for Mary’s situation could have worked better than storming off and throwing himself into his work. He is not painted as a totally unsympathetic character; there are times when his behaviour is understandable. He wins no favours with either Mary or the larger community with his attitude to the obligatory religious practice when he would rather be working for his own benefit. Mary is discontented, almost shrewish, from the start. Nothing Hugh does seems to make her happy for long. She is prone to gossip and has strongly held beliefs in fairies and witches that Hugh does not share. Much of her behaviour does stem from her superstitions but it is hard to understand her immediate dissatisfaction on her arrival at Hugh’s house following their wedding. In such a small community she would have few surprises about the nature of the man she was marrying or his circumstances.
Weave a Web of Witchcraft is an interesting examination of the forces and beliefs which made accusations of witchcraft possible, especially in a small and essentially isolated community, and how whispers can grow and turn an entire village against a single person to the point where the force of the law is brought against them. It shows the way people will interpret what they see not using logic but their own prejudices and firmly held beliefs. The chapters detailing the trial include verbatim sections from trial records and witness statements. The novel’s matter of fact approach to the subject is useful in not only showing us what happened but giving us an understanding the way these situations can escalate out of control.
Information on Hugh and Mary Parsons can be found on Jean M Roberts’ genealogy website, The Family Connection, but I’d recommend not reading it until you have finished the book.