It is March, 1649, the end of winter in an English colony that resembles Massachusetts. Simon Willoughby, who has governed the colony for most of its 19 years, comes home from his first trip away after recovering from a winter illness. The challenge he wanted — perhaps his final one — looms in front of him.
While he was away, a troubled, disappointed woman lashed out at the schoolmaster in Botolph, the colony’s capital, for failing to keep a promise to help her and her common-law husband by finding work for him.. The schoolmaster dies that night and the authorities arrest the woman for practising witchcraft, a false accusation, and murdering the schoolmaster with a curse.
Willoughby must oversee the woman’s trial and also the trial of an indentured servant who faces a charge of theft and also wrongful accusations of buggery and traffic with the devil. To make the situation worse, the young deputy governor, eager for power, believes that the colony is infested with witches and wizards and organizes a posse to arrest innocent suspects and bring them to Botolph for trial.
The story concerns Willoughby’s efforts to defend people who have been wrongly accused, to tame the deputy governor, who has become his adversary, and to bring a spirit of balance and charity to the colony.
“The Pilhannaw” is based on an isolated case of witchcraft in Boston in 1649. All but three of the characters and most of the incidents in the novel are creations of my imagination. The story affirms one of the age-old tenets of our culture — that injustice and tyranny may have their time in the sun but right prevails in the long run.