Lillian Carl's Reviews > The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
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Apr 17, 2012


Connie Goodwin is a graduate student at Harvard, who has just qualified to
write a doctoral dissertation on American colonial life, focussing on
perceptions of witchcraft. Her advisor, Manning Chilton, wants her to find a
new primary source on the subject.

Connie's mother, Grace, who lives in Santa Fe, asks her to go to
Marblehead -- just down the road from Salem -- to sift through her own
mother's abandoned cottage in order to sell it. Connie finds the place
hidden behind trees and an overgrown garden, filled with decaying artifacts.
Soon she is on the trail of an original source, the physick or spell book of
convicted Salem witch Delivarance Dane. Also soon, she meets a man,
steeplejack Sam, and falls in love.

The contemporary story is interspersed with "interludes", bits from the
lives of Deliverance, her daughter Mercy, and her grand-daughter Prudence.

The Physick Book has been compared to The Historian and The Thirteenth Tale,
and I agree -- it has a touch of both, but is less "literary" in tone and
has a different sort of supernatual content. Howe has a very interesting
take on the Salem witches in particular and on perceptions of witchcraft in
general.

I wonder why Howe set the book in 1991 rather than closer to 2009, when it
was published? Perhaps she wanted to call attention to the 300 years that
have passed since the witch trials and executions in 1692. Perhaps she
wanted an era before the internet and computers, so Connie would have to do
her research the old-fashioned way, with paper artifacts in libraries. Or
perhaps she wanted the story to take place before the publication of Harry
Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, since the myth of the philosopher's
stone plays an important part in the story. (The American title, Harry
Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, doesn't have the implications of the
original.)

As a historian myself, I loved going along with Connie as she cleaned out
her grandmother Sophia's house and as she did her research. As a writer, I
got very, very impatient with her, and wanted to yell, "Come on, already,
can't you see where all this is going?"

Well, no, the character INSIDE the narrative isn't necessarily going to see
where everything is going. But being several steps ahead of the character
has come to be quite an occupational hazard for me, one reason a lot of my
reading is non-fiction. In this book, in particular, I predicted every plot
wrinkle well in advance.

Ah well. Howe didn't intend the book to be a mystery, just mysterious, and
despite my unfortunate clairvoyance, I enjoyed it.


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