The Weight of Water: Ax Murder, Bestselling Novel, & Tourist Attraction


The Weight of Water

Author: Anita ShreveThe Weight of Water

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Setting: The Isles of Shoals,
Maine & New Hampshire

Published in: 1998

Pages: 246 [paperback]


The Isles of Shoals

The Isles of Shoals, an archipelago, lie in the Atlantic, ten miles off of the New Hampshire coast east of Portsmouth.

The islands measure three and a half miles north to south and one and a half miles east to west.

There are nine islands at high tide, eight at low; White and Seavey are connected.

“The largest island looked to its first residents like a fat pig wallowing in the sea, and hence the name of Hog. Smuttynose, our destination, derived its name from a clump of seaweed on the nose of a rock extending into the ocean” (Shreve 8).

IslesOfShoals.jpg*for tourism information, scroll to the end*



In The Weight of Water, Anita Shreve recreates the double ax murder that occurred on Smuttynose Island in 1873. Maren Hontve[d]t, her sister Karen, and her sister-in-law Anethe were unexpectedly left alone on the island one night. Their fishermen husbands went to Portsmouth to buy bait and a delayed shipment prevented them from returning on time.

Louis Wagner, a former boarder of the Hontvet’s, presumably overheard the predicament and knew the women would be alone. He is thought to have rowed to Smuttynose Island in hopes of robbing the house while the women were asleep. Karen happened to be sleeping in the kitchen of the Hontvet’s on that particular evening, as she stayed late waiting for her husband to return. When Wagner entered the house, Karen woke. Wagner’s “perfect crime”, spoiled.

Karen and Anethe were brutally murdered with an ax. Marin, the lone survivor, was found the next day hiding under a rock, wet and shivering with her small dog.



Jean Janes is researching the Smuttynose Murders. Bringing along her husband and daughter, she charters her brother-in-law’s boat to take photos and get a feel for the island. She pulls letters, journals, and information about the trial, which are archived in the historic city of Portsmouth. Jean steadily unravels the story leading up to the murders, as well as the suspecting infidelity of her husband.

“The air around us seems cleansed. Smuttynose is sharply etched and brushed with the thin wash of gold from a low sun. From the sloop, the gulls above the island are dark check marks in the blue dust” (Shreve 77).

Woven into the plot is Maren’s first-hand story. She describes the passage to the Isles of Shoals, the isolated lifestyle on Smuttynose Island, and finally the gruesome murders.

The Weight of Water is eloquently written, tying together the stories of Jean and Maren with fluidity. Historical factoids and fictional elements are gracefully entwined throughout. The Smuttynose Murders actually happened, but Shreve’s version adds fictional aspects. For instance, the Hontvet’s were originally from Boston; in the story they immigrated from Norway.

CLICK HERE to find out more about the Smuttynose Murders and Wagner’s trial.




While visiting New Hampshire or Maine, exploring the Isles of Shoals is a wonderful adventure. From June-September, you can embark on the Isles for a short visit, stay overnight on Star Island, or simply cruise around them while whale watching. The rock that sheltered Maren on that dreadful night, known as Maren’s Rock, is a popular attraction.


Many have fallen in love with the culture and volunteer to work on Star Island at the Oceanic House. In exchange for room and board, volunteers work in a spiritual, remote environment. The Oceanic House frequently hosts retreats and conferences.


PHOTO – Isles of Shoals

PHOTO – Smuttynose Island

PHOTO – Star Island

PHOTO – Star Island3authorSMblonde vs books header blue and green big11

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