Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine


The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane has plenty to recommend it: the Salem Witch Trials, crazy grad school mentors and a hot, agnostic steeplejack. Certainly sounds like a good start to a story, combining historical fiction, a bit of mystery and maybe something a little supernatural. It starts with a very interesting question about the Salem witch trials, one that is not normally addressed in the history books: What if some of these women really were witches? Katherine Howe might have an answer for that. Her ancestors include Elizabeth Howe, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692 and Elizabeth Proctor, another accused witch, whose story is the basis of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible.

Connie Goodwin is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, majoring in American History. She’s a serious young woman, as different from her flighty mother as she could possibly be. Her mother, Grace, makes her living cleansing auras and manipulating biologic energy fields. In the summer of 1991, when Connie should be focused on her dissertation, her mother asks her to spend some time at the old house once owned by her grandmother, Sophia. The house has fallen into disrepair and they will probably end up selling it to pay the back taxes, if Connie can get it cleaned up and ready for market. Reluctantly, Connie agrees.

The house has no electricity or telephone. The garden is a wilderness, dense with henbane, moonwort, monkshood — her dog even digs up a mandrake root. On a shelf of old books, Connie makes an odd discovery: a key, tucked away in an old Bible, hiding a tiny scrap of parchment with the name “Deliverance Dane” written on it in an old fashioned script. This name will spark Connie’s curiosity and her passion for history and research will take her on a tour of libraries, churches and auction houses, until she discovers the truth about Deliverance Dane and her “physick book.”

The story blends Connie’s modern-day search with flashbacks that tell the story of Deliverance, her daughter, Mercy, and her granddaughter, Prudence — women with strong ties to Salem, Massachusetts. She gets caught up in a question, asked by one of her professors during the oral examination for her doctorate: what if the women of Salem really were witches? We sometimes forget that while we consider the idea of witches (as they were described by the accusers) as pretty silly, in 1692 it all seemed very real. The townspeople believed that witches were living among them and that belief spurred them to tragic action. But what if it wasn’t simply hysteria and ignorance? What if at least some of the accused witches really did have power? Perhaps not Satanic power, but a command of herbal medicine and the will to heal? It’s a slightly different angle on the story, and it made for interesting reading.

The story sweeps you up in its mystery and moves along swiftly. The supernatural bits were really less interesting to me than the history and the research, but it was a very pleasant read all the way through. I also found the story of the author engaging: Katherine Howe originally proposed the idea for the book for National Novel Writer’s Month. While she doesn’t say whether she finished it for NaNoWriMo, its beginning and her heritage make the story special. It reminds me of The Heretic’s Daughter, which I reviewed last year. Kathleen Kent, the author, is a direct descendant of Martha Carrier, another infamous name from the Salem witch trials. It’s a nice touch of authenticity for both books.

I’m afraid that the supernatural bits will ruin the story for some, those who like their historical fiction very serious, but I enjoyed the book in spite of them. A few spells and incantations never hurt anyone… did they? My copy was an Advance Reading Copy; the hardcover release is scheduled for June but you can pre-order your copy at Amazon.com.

This review also appeared in my column at When Falls the Coliseum. You can check in there every Tuesday for a new "Lisa Reads" review.

3 comments:

bermudaonion said...

The reviews for this one seem to be all over the place. I guess I need to read it to see where I fit on the spectrum.

carolsnotebook said...

This one's still sitting on my shelf. I've heard some mixed reviews, too, but I'm looking forward to reading it.

Jena said...

Knowing going into the story that the premise is that there were real witches in Salem, I think you have to expect some incantations. I just wish it hadn't all be so predictable.