The theme for August is “Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!).” I decided to choose among six books that I bought nearly six years ago at an independent bookstore; they were on a sale table. All six were some version of historical fiction, all by women authors whose work I had not read, and all had really interesting covers. (And they have all been on my bookshelf since then, unread.)
I posted this photo on Twitter and asked for input, agreeing to read the one that the largest number of people thought looked the most interesting. From a pretty small sample of responses, the choice was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe, published in 2009 by Hyperion.
I have to talk first about what a beautiful book this is. I read mostly e-books these days, and usually when I read a printed book, I’m frustrated by its flimsiness (if it’s paperback) or unwieldiness (big hardbacks). This book is neither, and it is such a well-made and attractive book that I really enjoyed holding it and reading it. I’m sure the story is just as good in electronic format, but especially because this is a book about a book, the lovely print edition really enhanced my reading experience.
The main character in the novel is Connie Goodwin, a graduate student in American Colonial History at Harvard in 1991. In the first chapter she sits for her oral qualifying exam, so for most of the novel she is a PhD candidate at the very beginning of the dissertation process — looking for a project. Connie’s mother, Grace, is a hippy single mother who moved to New Mexico when Connie started college. Early in the book she asks Connie to go to her grandmother’s (Grace’s mother) empty house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to clean it out and ready it for sale. The house has been vacant since Sophia (the grandmother) died, about 20 years before, and now it needs to be sold to pay accrued taxes.
Connie and Grace have a complex relationship. Grace is a free spirit, concerned with healing energies and auras, and Connie’s early years were spend in a commune near Walden Pond. Connie is actively unlike her mother, working since childhood to be prepared, logical and orderly where Grace is free-spirited and impulsive. They are fond of, but bewildered by, each other. I thought their relationship was depicted really well; I enjoyed their loving conflict. Connie resents Grace putting her in the position of having to take care of the house business, but she agrees to do it.
The house is overgrown and spooky, with neither a telephone nor electricity. It is also still fully furnished and full of Sophia’s possessions. Connie plans to spend the summer living there, sorting through the contents and cleaning the place up, while still commuting into Cambridge for meetings with her advisory about her dissertation project. Her plan takes a turn when, her first night in the house, she finds a key in an old Bible. Inside the hollow shaft of the key is a piece of paper bearing the words “Deliverance Dane.” Connie decides fairly quickly that this might be someone’s name, and so she begins researching to find out whom it could have been. She learns that Deliverance was accused of witchcraft and excommunicated during the Salem witch trials in 1692.
Running parallel to Connie’s story is the story of Deliverance, her daughter Mercy, and her granddaughter Prudence, between 1681 and 1749. Prudence was a midwife, and Constance finds her diary while researching, but it really provides little insight into the questions about Deliverance. The book contains “interlude” chapters giving the reader glimpses of these other women’s lives; while Connie’s story proceeds in chronological order, the interludes do not, but instead sort of circle around Connie’s research and eventually come together in Deliverance’s execution for witchcraft near the end of the book.
The Physick Book mentioned in the title is Deliverance’s book, handed down to Mercy and then to Prudence. Connie and her academic advisor, Professor Chilton, come to believe that the book is in fact a spell book, and that Deliverance actually practiced a form of witchcraft. Chilton urges Connie to find the book and make it the center of her dissertation research.
Early in her search for Deliverance, Connie meets Sam, a restoration specialist working on the steeple of a local church. He helps with her research and they develop a romantic relationship. Then Sam meets with a horrible accident and is hospitalized, and Connie realizes that she needs to find Deliverance’s book in order to save Sam’s life.
I really enjoyed this book. The history is well-researched and fascinating, the academic research/detective work is involving, and the paranormal elements are handled with a matter-of-fact touch and an integration with the rest of the story that I appreciated. The romance doesn’t dominate the book, but it is important and satisfying. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the book was a best-seller, and I’m looking forward to reading the three books Howe has written since this debut.
The historical fiction aspect of this novel was a nice palate cleanser, showing that a good writer can add fictional elements to a historical setting without making bad history or erasing the authenticity of the historical experience. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about the Salem witch trials that starts with the premise, “what if they were witches?,” and I’m really glad I read this one.