The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
By Katherine Howe
Hyperion/Voice • 384 pages
Before any tale worth telling can make its way into the world, it must first forge within its author a powerful, even irresistible, connection.
Katherine Howe’s connection to her tale, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, runs far deeper than most: right down, in fact, to the roots of her family tree.
Howe’s engaging debut novel traces two stories, both set in Massachusetts but separated by 300 years. The modern-day tale belongs to Connie Goodwin: the earnest Harvard grad student and historian is about to tackle her dissertation but is distracted from the task by having to prepare her grandmother’s long-abandoned (and slightly creepy) house for sale.
The other tale belongs to Deliverance Dane, whose name Connie discovers on a scrap of paper in a dusty family Bible and whose unfolding story ultimately links Connie to the tragic mania that lead to the execution of 19 women and men during the Salem Witch trials.
It’s a link that the fictional character and the author share. Katherine Howe is descended from two women who stood accused of witchcraft in 1692. Only one survived the court’s final judgment.
Howe says she’d always been aware of the long family history in that small region of Massachusetts — Essex County — where the witch trials took place. Her family left the area during the Great Depression.
“When I was about 15, my aunt was doing research and discovered these Salem witches on twigs of the family tree. Everybody else in the family just yawned at this news. But of course, I was a 15 year old girl and my response was to say ‘Awesome!'” Howe says.
Howe didn’t give her Salem roots much more thought until she began graduate school. She and her husband had moved from bustling Cambridge to a house built in 1705 in Marblehead, just one town over from Salem. There, an unexpected puzzle piece fell into place.
On a blistering summer’s day endured without air conditioning, frowning over her gas stove with a spoon in hand and a hungry family waiting in the next room, she had a moment of recognition.
“In this low-ceilinged room in an old house with sweat coming off me in buckets, stirring something over a flame with a wooden spoon, I suddenly perceived myself in a continuum of women — my own family particularly — living in a space like this, doing these things, feeling these things,” she says. “Suddenly, I saw where I stood.”
Connie Goodwin’s quest to find that same understanding leads her to musty documents in libraries and records rooms, uncovering clues that will complete the tantalizing picture of Deliverance Dane’s life in Salem Village.
While Connie’s focus is on recovering Deliverance’s “physick book” — the handwritten compendium containing generations-worth of arcane prescriptions and healing techniques — in time, the search itself will reveal her own destiny.
Howe’s richly detailed sequences of 17th century colonial life are among this thought-provoking book’s most intriguing chapters.
Widowed Deliverance Dane gains a reputation among her neighbors as a “cunning woman” — a healer and mid-wife. Significantly, Deliverance considers herself a Christian woman and that her healing gift proceeds from divine agency. “There is nothing in this world or the next,” Deliverance says, “that is not the work of God.”
It is within this context that Howe asks her readers to consider that what became condemned as witchcraft may have been, perhaps even continues to be, quite real.
Physick Book is atmospheric without veering into claustrophobic gothicism. Howe has a historian’s eye for her novel’s New England setting. Supernatural elements of the tale come into play with a light touch which makes them both human-scaled and more persuasive. The cumulative effect underscores the notion that magical thinking — even when dismissed as mere superstition — is more common in daily life than we might consciously credit.
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