The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
by Katherine Howe
May 22nd 2009 by HarperCollins Canada / Hyperion Voice
Hardcover, 371 pages
1401340903 (isbn13: 9781401340902)
rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Peter Petford slipped a long wooden spoon into the simmering iron pot of lentils hanging over the fire and tried to push the worry from his stomach."
In 1692, amid the Salem witch trial frenzy, Livvy Dane stands among the women accused of practicing witchcraft.
Three hundred years later, PhD candidate Connie Goodwin spends her summer in a small town near Salem, cleaning up and clearing out the rustic house that belonged to her mother’s mother. Along with overgrown belladonna and actual mandrake root, Connie discovers a key and a slip of paper bearing the name “Deliverance Dane.”
It’s coincidentally fortuitous that just as Connie needs a dissertation topic with a newly discovered primary source, her grandmother’s ancient belongings suggest that Deliverance passed down an original book of spells. It’s also coincidentally fortuitous that the first and only man she meets in Marblehead is a hunky steeplejack with intellect to match Connie’s own.
There seem to be a lot of coincidentally fortuitous happenings in Physick Book. I won’t go so far as to claim deus ex machina, but neither would I argue if someone else wanted to suggest it. If there are coincidences, Howe weaves them deftly into the story so that they (almost) seem natural. Other details are more forced, such as a reference to a huge cellular phone to emphasize the 1991 setting.
And while the plot machinations can be easily absorbed, less comfortable are the chapters in which, jumping back in time to the events of 1692, Howe writes in the dialectical speech of Puritan New England. Unlike, say, Jim’s speech in Huckleberry Finn, the Nor’easter dialect Howe depicts is confusing, gawky, and jars the reader out of the story.
Despite its foibles, I would call Physick Book a solid first novel. Howe’s own academic proweress (and snobbery) is evident (there’s a recurring joke about Cornell not being an Ivy League school.) And the thorough research is crafted into the fantastically accessible history lessons. The pacing is remarkable – 400 pages, flipping periodically back to 17th century Salem, and there was never a time I felt as though I could skip ahead, nor did I want to.
What strikes me most about the book, however, beyond its technical merit, is that it’s got a lot of heart. Not the mushy-gushy kind, but the subtle intimacies shared among women, between mothers and daughters, close friends, mentors and their students, and even women separated by centuries. Howe’s female characters are empowered and conscious of their voices (or lack thereof). This is feminism at its best, comfortable and in a natural, organically occurring state.