I was lucky to get on my library’s hold list at the beginning so I just had to wait until Magic Lessons came out and soon it would be in my hands. In the meantime, I read Practical Magic since I’d never read Hoffman’s work before. (Click here for that review) While I enjoyed Practical Magic, I knew I’d be more interested in the history of the Owens witchcraft.
Magic Lessons tells the origin story of the Owens family that were featured in Practical Magic. The story begins in 1664 when Hannah Owens, a woman with incredible talents herself, discovers a baby in the snow. The baby has a birthmark, which signifies she’s a witch (I never knew that I was a witch because of a prominent birthmark on my left arm!) The bundled baby has the name Maria stitched in blue thread on her wrappings.
In time, Maria shows she has a natural talent for magic and begins to learn the arts from Hannah, who is an expert in the natural arts. It’s revealed in time that Hannah spent time in jail on a charge of witchcraft, and after she got out of jail, she moved as far away from people as possible, out in the woods, where no one would bother her.
The story continues when Maria’s real mother comes to visit when the girl is about 10, and wants Hannah’s help to rid herself of her husband. Things go badly, very badly, and through the experience, Maria loses Hannah and her real parents sell her into indentured servitude and ship her off to another country.
But that’s just the beginning of Magic Lessons. Maria creates a spell book based on everything she remembered from Hannah’s and adds to it. She has a black mirror where she can see her future, she just doesn’t know how the events will play out. She serves her five years of indentured servitude, makes some money on the side selling potions and cures and spells to people (on the sly, of course), and soon finds herself travelling to the Caribbean.
It is there where she meets the father of her husband, an older man who woos her young heart, takes her body, and then abandons her. He’s told her where he’s from, so Maria vows to follow to Essex County, Massachusetts. Not exactly where a witch should go in the 1600’s of the British Colonies in America, but Maria doesn’t know that. But the reader knows that, and that’s what makes the story so compelling.
On the ship to America, she cares for a navigator, the captain’s son, who has “breakbone fever” that sounds an awful lot like malaria. Her daughter, Faith, calls him Goat, and by the end of the voyage, a bond has formed between the sailor and Maria, but she thinks she must go to Massachusetts to find the father of her daughter. It’s her “fate” to confront him.
This history of Essex County, Massachusetts is woven into Magic Lessons rather well, and from my independent reading, I know that Faith’s father was based upon a living person whose life was fictionalized for the story. You know that no matter how much Maria keeps Faith safe in the woods in the old hunting cabin, that the villagers will start talking about her because she’s an outsider and does things differently than the uptight community where women are best not to be seen or heard. It’s only a matter of time before Maria is tried for witchcraft, but escapes drowning in a truly fantastical way, but by then her daughter, Faith, has been taken away by a woman who tricked Maria into taking care of her. All Maria knows is that the woman, Martha, got on a ship to New York. Since the townsfolk couldn’t drown Maria, they’d hang her instead.
The sailor, Samuel Dias, had followed Maria to Essex County, and had a hand in Maria’s escape from the hangman’s noose; he replaced the rope with one that was worn with salt water and fragile so the rope broke. But not before Maria curses every descendant of hers and those that they love. “To any man who ever loves an Owens, let this curse befall you, let your fate lead to disaster, let you be broken in body and soul, and may it be that you never recover.”
Dias, his father, the ship’s captain, and Maria set up house in New York City and every day Maria goes about town looking for Faith. Maria sends Samuel away because she knows she has cursed all the men who love an Owens woman. Meanwhile, she grows her garden of herbs and makes a special black soap that Hannah had taught her to make, and once again has women asking for help, whether it be medicinal or spells of love. Maria looks in her black mirror and can’t see Faith and doesn’t know why it is so hard to find her.
Meanwhile, Faith is being held captive in Brooklyn by a super-religious woman who binds her wrists in iron bracelets, because that sort of binds a witch’s powers. Faith realizes she must obey this woman and pretends to be an ever-dutiful girl, all while scheming her escape. She’s got a lot of darkness in her heart, thinking her mother abandoned her to this Martha woman, and while shopping, finds an old spell book of the Dark Arts. Faith procures it and begins learning the dark arts.
The how and why of the mother/daughter reunion is important, but I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say that both mother and daughter learn a lot about love and fate, and just because you have the sight means you can see everything that will happen to you. Lifelines can change, as it does for the Owens women.
They find themselves back in Massachusetts, Faith going after her father, and Maria trying to stop her from becoming something truly dark with her actions. On their heels is Samuel Dias, tired of the sea and desperate to be with Maria, curse be damned. Now it’s Faith’s turn to be tried for witchcraft, even though the Governor ordered the trials stopped. Two vigilantes decides to hold their own trial because they burned down their own barn by carelessness but blame the witch. So they decide to drown her.
Just in time, Maria and Samuel arrive. Maria has the book of Dark Arts with her and begins a spell which is supposed to protect and keep assailants at bay. The vigilantes can’t cause any more damage, and Samuel sees Faith in the water, chained to a chair. He goes after her while the death beetle is making noise and Maria has no idea whether the beetle is for Faith or Samuel. Both come out of the water, but it is clear that Samuel has lost the battle and is dead. The death beetle is silent. Maria knows of a dark spell to bring the dead back to life but she’s been pounding on his chest in sort of CPR, and he starts breathing again. Because he’s died and come to life again, the Owens curse is broken for him.
And that is how, in the year 1696, the Owens house was built in Essex County, Massachusetts, and Samuel and Maria eventually have a daughter named Hannah, after the women who took her in all those years ago in the original Essex County.
I enjoyed Magic Lessons much more than Practical Magic. The characters were fully fleshed out, the attention to detail like the recipes for cures and potions and lotions and soaps were excellent. It was a world that was completely foreign to me, but I was fully invested in the story. I didn’t have as big of a problem with no chapter breaks like I did listening to Practical Magic. There are breaks in the story, and it is told in parts. I’d highly recommend it, even if you hadn’t read Practical Magic or The Rules of Magic, the “sequels” that were written first.
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