How to Hang a Witch, by Adriana Mather

It’s October, close to Halloween, and I wanted a book to match the season. I had caught wind of this book a few months before its release and added it to my to-read list, but it took me a couple months before I remembered to check it out of the local library.

The book description says the book is the “Salem Witch Trials meets Mean Girls.” It’s one thing when friends or reviews describe a book as a mash-up, but when it’s in the book description itself, I get a little skeptical. But Mean Girls is a viciously funny movie (“Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George?”), and I’ve been intrigued by the Salem Witch trials for most of my life. It comes with the territory when growing up less than an hour away from Salem. I’ve visited Salem several times, and I’ve both been in and directed the play The Crucible. But it was the added info that author Adriana Mather is a direct descendant of someone involved in the witch trials that made the prospect of reading the book even more intriguing. Would she make the book be all the things—funny, biting, satirical, and spooky—implied in that mash-up?

Absolutely!

The story starts with Samantha Mather—a direct descendant (like the author) of Cotton Mather, a minister who supported the witch trials—moving from New York to Salem with her stepmother while her father is hospitalized in a coma. She moves into the old house where her father grew up, a place where strange, ghostly things start happening. In school the next day, her last name alone attracts negative attention among other students, particularly a collection of four girls and a boy known as the Descendants. Their family trees include ancestors who were accused, tried, and hanged as witches back in 1692. No wonder they don’t like Samantha.

She gets bullied, and as a teacher, I was slightly put off by how the school population (students and teachers) is somewhat complicit in the bullying. The school administration and her stepmother chalk it up to Sam’s somewhat troubled past. But this is fiction, and as the plot got more mysterious, spooky, gripping, and scathing, it bothered me less because there’s a really powerful and important message buried inside the intricate, twisty plot. But before I get to that message, I want to talk about the characters and plot.

Sam is a great narrator. She’s smart, snarky, and stubborn. She lacks some self-confidence because of all that’s happened to her, but she’s also got a strong sense of what’s right and wrong. As her situation at school gets worse, and she is ultimately accused of being responsible for some freaky and dangerous things happening at the town, all she wants to do is help everyone by solving the problem—a curse on the descendants (including herself) of those involved in the witch trials.

The supporting cast is also well-developed. I like that the Descendants have distinct voices and personalities, and Susannah—the first to reach out to Sam—was my favorite of that bunch. As in many YA books, there’s a kind of love triangle with Sam and two boys: sweet, noble neighbor Jaxon and proper, mysterious Elijah. I only loosely consider it a triangle, and it was never a distraction, but it was quite the contrary, as both relationships were different, unique, strong and necessary to the story.

There are at least two big mysteries, and it was fun watching them converge and diverge throughout the plot. The stakes are clearly raised through the book, and though I sniffed out the ultimate villain, that villain’s true motivations surprised me. I didn’t want to put the book down when I had to, particularly through the climactic confrontation.

What elevates this book toward best of 2016 status is the message. Sam is trying to stop a curse that has been repeating itself in Salem since the witch trials, but the unsubstantiated finger-pointing that occurred then has repeated far too many times in history. Whether it was the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism in the 1950s (the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) or the profiling of different ethnicities in many eras of history including the present, the hysteria is unnecessary. And it happens in high school also if one “popular” group of students socially banish others for no reason other than they’re different. Even without witchcraft, this happens, and hopefully well-written books like this can help point out why that’s dangerous while doing so with an enjoyable story too.

This book exceeded my expectations, especially after reading a few books that didn’t. Maybe my reading dry spell was a curse, finally broken by How to Hang a Witch and its FIVE STAR rating.

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How to Hang a Witch is available at Amazon.

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