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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by by Katherine Howe

By Rusty | Books | February 15, 2010 |

By Rusty | Books | February 15, 2010 |

I have a special affinity for witches. I think all girls who were kind of weird during adolescence do, there’s something so very attractive about being weird not because the other children have decided to exclude you but because you have secret magic powers. And I know plenty of smart women who like to joke that it’s a good thing they weren’t born during witch hunts because they’d have been burned at the stake, as shorthand for saying “I’m a curious individual who does not conform to rigid standards of femininity by choice.” They’re a symbol of a kind of purely female knowledge and rebellion, and easy to romanticize given the hardships once faced by those branded with that title.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (who, according to the author flap, is actually related to two women persecuted in the Salem witch trials) follows a Harvard graduate student getting ready to prepare her doctoral thesis on American Colonialsim who is also tasked with cleaning out her grandmother’s house which dates back to the time of the Salem witch trials. While Connie is exploring the house she finds an ancient bible which holds a key that has a piece of paper with the name “Deliverance Dane” written on it. Inspired by her advisor’s advice that she should seek out a new primary source for her dissertation, Connie decides to pursue the name through historical records to see what she can find.

The story also winds through the lives of Deliverance Dane and her daughters, so the reader knows what happened to these women as we watch Connie in her investigation. There are also hints that Connie’s thesis advisor is going a little off the rails, a suspicion that’s confirmed by a fellow professor who Connie goes to for advice when she becomes uneasy with his demands. When it’s hinted that the book Connie is pursuing might the closest thing to a genuine spell book one could find from 17th century New England, Dr. Chilton (her advisor) becomes downright obsessed and begins hounding Connie with threats of professional embarrassment if she does not find the book for him.

I’m just going to put this out there for anyone who may be put off by it: in this book, magic is real. What the women who possessed the book were doing with it was actual magic and that comes into play in the story in a very real and important way. It’s a little unnerving to go the whole way through the book thinking that what Connie’s looking for is likely a book of recipes for medicines or ways to diagnose illness and how to treat it, when it is an actual book of true magic which is able to be used in the “present” of the novel. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about my historical thrillers becoming fantasy midway through.

Overall I enjoyed the novel. It’s set in the early ’90s, so a lot of the research Connie does is by hand or by foot; she actually looks through card catalogues and other primary sources where they’re located instead of sitting around her house in her pajamas browsing an online database. I love the internet, but it has taken some of the fun and romanticism out of research. I also thought that the portrayal of multi-generational matriarchal relationships was a nice touch and managed to steer clear of cheap sentimentality. Connie has a short temper with her mother, the kind where you can tell that her annoyance is not born out of the particular instance or words being said, but by a backlog of experiences stretching to her childhood that have led Connie to a hair trigger when it comes to certain behaviors. Despite this, it’s apparent that the women both love and care for each other deeply.

My biggest annoyance with the novel (and this is something that irks me often, in reading) is that there are a couple places where Connie acts completely out of character for the sake of dramatic tension. I understand the need to make sure the story doesn’t reach it’s climax too soon, or to increase the drama of said climax, but there are ways to do it where your reader doesn’t say to themselves “Wow, I thought you were supposed to be earning a PhD in American Colonialism from Harvard and I was totally three steps ahead of you there.” Still, it’s an interesting little read with a few minor storytelling problems that most writers fall victim to at one point or another.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Rusty’s reviews, check out her blog, Rusty’s Ventures.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.