Tale spun out of threads from Salem witch era
“I was moved by how fully the past in New England still haunts the present, especially in its small, long-memoried towns,’’ Katherine Howe writes in the postscript to her terrific debut novel, “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.’’
Howe, a doctoral candidate in American and New England Studies at Boston University, is the descendant of two women tried as witches, only one of whom survived. In this book she asks: What if accepted history - that the persecution of witches was a response to the last gasp of Calvinism - is wrong? What if these women really were witches?
“The Physic Book’’ tells the interconnected stories of two women 300 years apart: Deliverance Dane, who was hanged during the “Salem panic’’ of 1692, and Connie Goodwin, who in 1991 is working toward her doctorate from Harvard on the history of American Colonial life.
The story begins in December 1681 when a widower summons Deliverance to his Marblehead cottage to save his desperately ill child. The child dies, setting in motion the persecution of Deliverance for witchcraft.
The story moves to Cambridge in 1991, where Connie is undergoing her qualifying doctoral exam under the supervision of her disagreeable mentor, Manning Chilton.
Meanwhile, Connie’s mother, a 1960s flower child living in Santa Fe, has asked Connie to spend the summer readying for sale her grandmother’s ramshackle Colonial-era house in Marblehead. It is there that Connie happens upon a piece of paper concealed in her family Bible bearing the name Deliverance Dane.
In a fascinating depiction of the detective work involved in historical research, Connie learns that Deliverance was almost certainly an undiscovered Salem witch and that her daughter possessed a book of spells that, if extant, could serve as the basis for Connie’s dissertation. Connie plumbs numerous Boston-area archives, in the process meeting and falling in love with Sam Hartley, a steeplejack whose specialty is historical restoration. Meanwhile, Chilton becomes increasingly desperate to get his hands on the book.
Connie’s voyage to locate the physick book (and discover her own heritage and powers through an unbroken line of women starting with Deliverance) is mirrored by the second story arc that takes us back to Salem and the lives of Deliverance, her daughter, and granddaughter. As Deliverance moves closer to her fateful destiny, Connie faces the possible death of her lover Sam, who is badly injured in a suspicious fall from a scaffold. The only way to save him is to find the spellbook and “physick’’ him back to health, pitting her in a race against time - and Chilton, who wants the book to gain for himself a position among the world’s top intellectuals.
The strengths of this book are its clever thesis and the wonderfully rendered scenes of Colonial life: the sights, smells, and authentic dialogue. And the scene of Deliverance being hanged on a scaffold on a hilltop is painful in its vividness and almost apocryphal in its symbolism.
The modern characters, with a few exceptions, are less compelling. Connie, a “careful, precise young woman, not given to leaving anything to chance,’’ is rather bland, and her love affair with Sam is fast and unexamined. Even when she finally twigs to the fact that she’s a witch, she thinks only of curing her boyfriend and not of the importance of her newfound powers.
“The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane’’ is a beautifully written, historically captivating thriller of the hidden powers of women throughout the centuries. Once Howe has finished her dissertation, we can only hope that she will turn her considerable talents to writing another book steeped in the history of Colonial New England.
Virginia A. Smith is a freelance writer.