There’s a lot to think about in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (Find this book in our catalog). At the same time it is one of those books that draw the reader in so completely that he or she lives uncritically within the covers until they have closed them for the last time. Shuttling smoothly between the Marblehead, Massachusetts of around 1692, the year of the Salem witch trials, and the Marblehead, Salem, and Cambridge of 1991 the author draws us into her worlds: the world of the early colony, with medieval superstition, hardship and fear, and the opposing world of twentieth century academia, with infighting, competing egos – and fear.
When we first meet Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin she is in the middle of taking her four-hour oral doctoral qualifying exams. We see that despite years of study and weeks of cramming she is extremely doubtful of her ability to be accepted for her dissertation. At the last minute, however, she turns her examination around and gives an ace answer to a question about the witchcraft panic in Salem around the year 1692. Suddenly the mood lightens and Connie and the reader realize that she has passed her examination with flying colors. Connie is in fact a rising star in the field of colonial history. She hopes that by cooperating on a forthcoming conference presentation with her mentor, the chair of the history department her reputation will be made. The professor suggests that she does some more research in the field of seventeenth century witchcraft allegations and that she finds some unique primary source document on which to hang her dissertation.
Meanwhile, it is summer and Connie is burned out from her studies, so she agrees to do her mother a favor and go to Marblehead to sort out her grandmother’s empty house and put it on the market. When the house turns out to be an almost ruinous medieval vernacular cottage left empty for nigh-on twenty years and surrounded by a jungle of herbs and poisonous plants we are not surprised, since we have already been introduced to a young mysterious healing woman and her role in a 1681 tragedy that is obviously going to reverberate down the centuries. The reader is predisposed to think that Connie’s grandmother had at least some skill in healing. Connie herself is slow to see the connections between herself, her mother and grandmother and the past, but the reader enjoys following the clues and anticipating their possible meaning. The house itself is vividly described and almost takes on its own role in the story.
Connie is a capable young woman making her way in an extremely competitive field. She has already had considerable success but she fails to see it and still is very immature. She has been sequestered away with her books for years, and though she has had a few unsatisfactory and depressing dates, she really has no experience of men. Then Connie meets Sam, a steeplejack and restoration specialist. There is a mutual powerful attraction, but Sam may find that a relationship with Connie is going to cost him more than he bargained.
Connie begins to clean out her grandmother’s possessions and finds an ancient Bible and in it a mysterious slip of paper bearing the words, “Deliverance Dane.” The quest to find out the significance of the paper eventually leads Connie to think that she might be on the trail of that unique research source that her professor was so keen on. In fact the professor is beginning to take an almost insane and threatening interest in the progress of the quest as Connie follows the puzzle clues from one archive to another.
As the pieces fall together Connie finds out more about the person of Deliverance Dane. Her harrowing story falls into place with Connie’s research results, the flashbacks to the 1600s that the author gives us , and with the disturbing visions of the past that are vouchsafed to Connie. Connie begins to live with fear – could someone be threatening her life and those she loves? Are there forces at work here that she hasn’t understood until now?
This book is a sort of coming-of-age story and a love story. It will appeal to readers who enjoy stories of how the events in the past must inevitably effect what happens today. It will also appeal to readers who like quests for ancient artifacts, codes, ancient signs and puzzles. If you liked The Lace Reader, you will like this, especially if you liked old ruinous houses, the Salem, Massachusetts setting and the element of witchcraft.