Alice Hoffman returns to the world of witchcraft with “Magic Lessons,” a prequel to “Practical Magic,” published in 2003. Her new book is engaging, a descriptive story that begins in England in 1664 when Hannah Owens finds an abandoned baby near her woodland cottage, a child she names Maria.
Hannah is a healer, a “master at the Nameless Art,” who brews portions and grows herbs to help women who come to her for physical/mental problems or to assist them in matters of love. Her reputation makes her suspect at a time when women with special powers were believed to be witches.
Hannah’s gifts for healing are practiced and learned, but as Maria grows it becomes evident the girl possesses an inborn, natural gift for magic. When a piece of silver is placed in her hands it quickly turns black and Maria doesn’t sink when she walks into a pond.
Hannah and Maria are happy together, but the girl’s life with Hannah comes to a tragic end when the old woman is brutally murdered by men who believe she’s a witch. In actuality, Maria’s real mother Rebecca is a witch who gave her up as an infant to be raised by goodhearted Hannah.
When Maria, who has the “sight” finds Rebecca and moves in with her, the girl is schooled in the ways of witchery—which Rebecca excels in, though she has failed in love, her choice of men far from wise. In fact, unbeknownst to Maria, a man her mother had relations with, Maria’s father, sells her to a ship’s captain who’s manning a vessel set for Curacao.
On that steamy, enchanted island Maria falls for Hathorne, an American from Salem, Massachusetts, who’s smitten by her. Only a teenager at the time, Maria succumbs to her desires and is again abandoned, this time by Hathorne, who leaves her with child, a little girl she names Faith. Determined to find him, Maria secures passage to America with Faith at her side, but on the voyage fate intervenes and their future is forever altered.
Love is a strong theme in “Magic Lessons,” Maria’s search for this illusive bond permeating the story. The book also focuses on the love between Maria and Faith, a relationship that goes through a rocky time mothers and daughters may well understand. There’s much to enjoy in Hoffman’s newest. Though a bit overlong at times, its characters are complex and interesting, and historical information about women accused of witchery is fascinating, but chilling.