Alice Hoffman is the author of the beloved story Practical Magic and Rules of Magic. This book is the prequel to both. The author finally lets us all see the origin of the Owens family curse and tells us the story of the magical family’s matriarch, Maria Owens.
The story begins in Essex County in England in 1664, when Hannah Owens discovered an abandoned baby girl and her familiar, a crow named Cadin. Hannah raises the pale-eyed baby, whom she names Maria, in her home secluded in the woods. She teaches Maria all that she knows about the “Nameless Art”, which Hannah uses to heal anyone that comes to her door seeking help, even though witches are hunted and executed in England. Eventually, Maria encounters her real mother, Rebecca, who is curious as to how the daughter she abandoned turned out. This chance meeting has consequences that will cost Hannah her life and send Maria to Curacao.
While in Curacao, Maria continues to practice the Nameless Art, expanding her knowledge of plants, herbs, people, and nature, documenting it all in her Grimoire. Maria meets Jonathan, a businessman from Massachusetts, and they are instantly infatuated with each other. However, Maria’s heart is broken when Jonathan leaves the island overnight, abandoning pregnant Maria just as her mother had so long ago. She gives birth to a healthy and magical baby girl, Faith, who has pale eyes and bright red hair. Maria is determined to follow Jonathan to Essex County in Massachusetts. To gain passage on a ship, Maria promises a shipowner named Abraham to cure his son, Samuel, of breakbone fever during the trip to Boston. While nursing Samuel back from the brink of death, Maria and Faith bond deeply with him, a bond that will last a lifetime and save both Owens women in their future.
Once in Boston, Maria finds Massachusetts to be a bustling and difficult place. After she spends the winter in Boston, she sets off for Salem in Essex County to find Jonathan. Ignoring all the signs warning her, Maria remains hopefully and blind to the truth. Once she finds his place, she finds out that he has a wife and family of his own, who he betrayed in Curacao. Still hopeful that he would accept Maria and Faith, she allows him to visit her in her cabin outside of town. Soon enough, she realizes that he has no intention of including them in his life in Salem and that the man she followed to Salem is no longer the man she fell for on the island. Jonathan will betray her, find her guilty of witchcraft during the craze that sweeps through Puritan Essex County, sentence her to hang, and abandon her once again at the gallows. Just before she is hanged, Maria casts out a curse on any man that would fall in love with an Owens woman. The curse would last for generations.
Of course, Samuel is there to save Maria’s life and help her search for her daughter, who was taken by a jealous widow that is disgusted by Maria and Faith’s lifestyle. They leave Massachusetts and settle in New York. Maria never loses faith that her daughter is out there, somewhere nearby, and continues to use her skills to send Faith messages in dreams as to how to find her if she escapes. During their time in New York, Maria does her best to keep Samuel at arms-length, so that he does not fall in love with her. She feels that by keeping emotionally distant and refusing commitment will save him from the curse she set in Salem.
Faith does escape her captor and manages to use her talents to connect with her mother once more. Now living in Manhattan with Maria, Faith starts to explore the darker side of the Nameless Art, left-handed magic. She is filled with a desire to inflict revenge on her father for abandoning them. But there is a price to pay for practicing unnatural magic like this.
Once again, Maria Owens travels to Essex County, this time searching to save her daughter not only from the crazed witch hunters, but from the dark side of magic. Of course, she and Samuel will make it just in time to rescue her daughter from being drown. However, Faith will lose her abilities, but regain the sense of what is actually important.
If you are a fan of Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic and The Witches of New York, by Ami Mckay, then you will enjoy this book. It was easy for me to get into this story line. Hoffman transports the reader to a time when Manhattan still smelled of apples and Brooklyn was open and wild countryside. When women were blamed for most things that went wrong- a failed crop, bad weather, a colicky child, strong desires and urges. Any woman who could read, write, be independent, and look a man in the eye must be a witch or under the spell of a witch in Puritan run Essex County. They would be jailed, humiliated, tortured, tried, and hanged just for being different, or for having something another woman wanted. Every woman lived in fear of their neighbor, a passerby, their husbands, even other women. The Owens women somehow managed to remain strong enough to be true to who they are even though they are judged for it. Perhaps there is something we can all learn from the Owens family. Be true to yourself and always love someone who will love you back.