Thursday, July 23, 2009
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Book description from the publisher:
"Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written
upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest --
to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular
power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past than she could have ever imagined."
Having read many reviews of this novel with widely differing opinions, I was anxious to read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane to determine if both the high praise and criticisms were warranted. As usual, I found a comfortable place in the middle ground as there were several aspects of the book which were very interesting and enjoyable, and, like some books, it had its share of flaws.
Alternating the narrative between the modern day (1991) and interludes in the past (1681-late 1700's), the story opens as Connie Goodwin, a candidate for her doctoral degree program in history, must begin the process of determining the topic of her dissertation. Her advisor and mentor, Professor Chilton, insists that she must take a bold new direction in her research and find a unique primary source to explore. Revisiting the same, over-used archives of history just won't do for his protege'. He has ambitions for himself and for his student's career.
When Connie inherits the burden of getting her grandmother's run-down home in Marblehead cleaned and ready to be put on the market, a discovery leads her to the perfect path to explore for her studies...a key inside of a bible. Tucked inside the key is a tiny piece of parchment with the words Deliverance Dane. What is the significance of this artifact, and what is it doing in her grandmother's home?
The story moves very quickly and easily between the past and the present, and I was immediately drawn in. As Connie begins her quest through the archives, the reader is treated to a well-researched picture of the lives of healing women in the Puritan community.(Since the present day year is 1991, all of the searches are done without the use of the internet or technology.) The strength of the novel lies in the "interludes" or flashbacks to the lives of the women who are later accused of practicing witchcraft. The most compelling part of the story is Connie's efforts to learn the identity of Deliverance Dane, and also to solve the puzzle of the physick book: was it a journal, a book of home remedies, a grimoire....? Does it still exist? What if the women who were accused of withcraft actually did practice magic... or have paranormal powers?
The weaker part of the plot is in the developments which take place in the present. A romantic interest is introduced, and although the character plays a role in the ending, the relationship was uninteresting and uninspiring and I skimmed over these parts. The villain is easy to spot and the motive is fairly obvious, so breezing through these sections will get the reader to the heart of the story: the quest for the physick book, the contents, and its impact on several generations of New England women.
Katherine Howe's passion for history and her ability to paint a picture of the past made this book a worthwhile read and made up for any flaws in the modern day plot. Her Postscript, "Real Witches, Real Life" adds her own personal twist to the story, as she is a descendant of two women who were accused of witchcraft. Overall, an interesting read.
4 stars = very good; worth reading
Title: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Author: Katherine Howe