Katherine Howe,
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
(Voice, 2010)

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a very good and enjoyable read, but I must admit it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Perhaps I was a bit too intrigued by the premise. I'll read anything connected to the Salem Witch Trials, and here we have a novel -- written by an historian -- promising to offer a different take on the controversial subject, one that not only proffers the idea that there could be an element of truth to the colonial witchcraft charges but also offers up the prospect of an actual witch's spellbook lying in wait in some forgotten repository.

And get this -- first-time novelist Katherine Howe is actually related to two of the Salem women accused of witchcraft, Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor. Having done postgraduate work in history myself, I know the exhilaration of poring through rare primary documents in search of heretofore unknown facts or discoveries, and I was thoroughly prepared to revel in the protagonist's search for any and all of Deliverance Dane's centuries-old writings.

Unfortunately, the novel never developed into a true page-turner for me.

Doctoral candidate in history Connie Goodwin finds herself charged with spending a summer in Marblehead, Massachusetts, readying her grandmother's house for sale. The old, abandoned place is a mess, but the discovery of a mysterious key with an unfamiliar name stashed inside an old Bible sets Connie on a path of discovery and potential scholarship. Her adviser and mentor back at Harvard is exceedingly excited about the prospect of what she might find, but the road to discovery increasingly becomes more personal to Connie as she proceeds with her search. Plenty of evidence of ties to the unknown Deliverance Dane goes unnoticed by Connie, and the reader learns Deliverance's story long before the protagonist does -- both of which tend to undermine the reader's fascination with Connie's search for truth.

The story just seems to lack a strong sense of passion or intensity underneath the surface, and it does tend to wander at times away from its foundation. I don't have a problem with the budding romance that develops in these pages, but some may feel that it sometimes wanders somewhat astray from the book's central subject matter. What I expected to be one of the novel's most significant chapters wasn't even included, as we're only informed of a crucial event after the fact. Then there is the prime conflict in the story, which I felt required much more explanation regarding its origins.

One relative strength of the novel is the author's attempt to portray life in colonial Salem as it really was, which is a clear byproduct of the author's dedication to history. Some of the details may get a tad tedious to some readers, but I actually felt that Deliverance Dane was a more complete and real character than Connie turned out to be, and that's a bit of a problem because Connie is the main character. Still, it's an interesting read and an impressive debut novel, and it does offer a refreshingly different viewpoint on the lives of some of the "cunning" women caught up in the madness of the Salem Witch Trials.

book review by
Daniel Jolley

2 April 2011

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