Mar 23 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Last night, I finished Katherine Howe’s 2009 novel, “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane“. According to the book jacket, the author is a doctoral student of American and New England Studies at Boston University, much like the book’s protagonist Connie Goodwin. It’s hard to write anything about this book without exposing a great deal of its unfolding contents. If you don’t want spoilers, you might want to stop reading this review now. You’ve been warned.

The story begins moving when Connie gets a phone call from her New Age hippie-dippy mother, asking her to visit the long abandoned home of Connie’s grandmother. Connie is asked to clean the old place and prepare it for sale to pay off back taxes on the property. Connie agrees to this, despite her adviser’s wishes that she devote the summer to finding a unique primary source for her upcoming dissertation. She soon discovers that her grandmother’s home is a 17th century house that has belonged to her family for generations. The mystery begins when she finds a small piece of rolled paper tucked into the end of a key, bearing the name “Deliverance Dane”. Thus commences the best part of the book. Connie uses the paper scrap to uncover a lost story omitted from the history of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. I enjoyed how the story followed her research from source to source, even when some of those sources and breakthroughs fell into her lap. I hoped that Howe would be able to tie up the story neatly without delving into magic, but that didn’t end up being the case…

Despite my wishes, the book soon involved alchemy and vernacular magic, meaning magic that is real rather than just rituals performed by cunning folk or the fears and superstitions of pre-Enlightenment society. I guess I shouldn’t hold it against the author for writing a fantasy book rather than a historical mystery, but still I was disappointed. To its credit, the book does give a great deal of insight into the history of the witch trials. While Connie is trying to unravel the Deliverance mystery, the reader is treated to modern theories on elements that may have contributed to the panic in the first place. These included things I’d never thought of (not that I’ve ever given the Salem Witch Trials much thought) like: tensions between religious communities, witness hallucinations due to moldy bread  (I’d heard that one before), an attempt to reassert slipping Calvinist influences, and changing roles and power of women in society. The historical underpinnings of this book redeem it in many ways. I want to both pummel the author for taking the easy way out and congratulate her for exposing me to an interesting (and frightening) time in our history. In the end, the story’s history lessons won out.

I watched today as Giles Corey was presst to death between the stones. He had lain so for two dayes mute. With each stone they tolde him he must plead, lest more rocks be added. But he only whisperd, More weight. Standing in the crowde I found Goodwyfe Dane, who, as the last stone lower’d, went white, grippt my hand, and wept.” – Letter fragment dated “Salem Towne, September 16, 1692” Division of Rare Manuscripts, Boston Athenaeum

3.5 out of 5