Book Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

physick-bookThe Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

by Katherine Howe

“I watch’d today as Giles Corey was presst to death between the stones.  He had lain so for two days mute.  With each stone they tolde him he must plead, lest more rocks be added.  But he only whisperd, More weight.  Standing in the crowd, I found Goodwyfe Dane, who, as the last stone lower’d, went white, grippt my hand, and wept.”

Such is the opening line for Katherine Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  Immediately, I was drawn in.  Granted, I have always found the Salem witch trials fascinating, but Howe’s book was still fresh in the sense that it brought around new theories and ideas that have never been used before.  First things first, I had never heard of Deliverance Dane.  Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Goody, Elizabeth Howe . . . anyone who has read anything about the Salem witch trials will find those names to be familiar.  For this reason, despite the books opening quotation, I believed Deliverance Dane to be a figment of the author’s imagination.  In reality, she too was actually tried as a witch in Salem, albeit a few months later than the others.

First things first though, let me lay out a bit of the plot for those of you who know nothing of the book (which may be an impossibility since it’s gotten a great deal of hype!).  Connie Goodwin is researching for her PhD at Harvard in 1991.  She is a bit unsure of what direction she wants to take, although she’s a researcher of the colonial era, when she moves into her grandmother’s house (referred to as Granna) for the summer.  Granna’s home has been abandoned for about two decades and has fallen into a state of disrepair.  On her first night in the home, Connie comes across a bible from the seventeenth century.  In the bible she finds an antique key with a small piece of parchment through the hole.  All that is written on the parchment is the name Deliverance Dane.  Connie’s interest is immediately piqued and as she begins to uncover the mystery of who Deliverance Dane was, she decides to make the woman the topic of her dissertation.  They key to discovering the mystery surrounding Deliverance Dane’s life and death can only be found in her old “receipt” book, also referred to as, among other things, a recipe book and a book of shadows.  And that’s really all you need to know at this point.  I’ll leave the rest for the reader to discover!

One interesting concept in the book is the idea that perhaps the villagers of Salem weren’t misguided in believing that some of their peers were actually witches. At one point, Connie’s 6a00d8341c44f153ef00e54f5194478834-500wiadvisor, Manning Chilton, says to her “Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” This really resonated with me and from that point on, I was hooked.  I found there to be much truth in his words, although not necessarily in the context of this book.  We are all guilty of believing something to be false just because that is what has been drilled into our heads.  In Connie’s situation, she had not once dreamed that there could have been any merits to the accusations made against the women put to death in Salem in the late seventeenth century.  Of course the obvious answer is that the accusors in Salem were pointing the finger at these “witches” for some sort of personal gain.  What their reasoning was, I don’t think we’ll ever know, but one option that has never been touched upon is that they did it because the accused really were witches.  Now, as I mentioned earlier, I am too much of a skeptic to believe that there is any truth to that theory, but The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is fiction; historical fiction, but fiction nontheless.  So although I don’t believe there is any substance to this theory in reality, I very much enjoyed seeing it play out in the book.

Another interesting viewpoint in the book was the reflection between science as it is now and science as it was seen in the late 1600s.  We have so much knowledge at our fingertips right now, but the same cannot be said for Deliverance Dane’s time period.  As described in the book, “Professor Chilton viewed science as an intellectual historian might–treating science not as a set of facts that are true no matter what the time period, but as a way of looking at the world that depended on historical context.” While Manning Chilton’s character was extreme, he had a point.  Much of what happened in Salem during the Salem witch trials is completely due to the historical context.  The way of thinking was, in many ways, the antithesis of what it is now.  One example of this is the belief that those afflicted with a sickness are being punished by God.  The reader is introduced to this immediately in the beginning of the book with the illness and death of young Martha Petford.  Although just a small child, her father Peter is in anguish that the source of her disease is probably punishment from God, either because of his child’s wrongdoings or his own.  In this day and age, such a Sal_hangbelief is rarely seen; the change in perception is largely due to science because we now know what causes most diseases and have found a remedy to keep such sicknesses at bay.

I did find this book lagging in certain parts–I definitely wished Howe would have given us more of a firsthand glimpse into the life of Deliverance Dane and her daughter Mercy, but instead the majority of the story is told through the voice and research of Connie.  This wasn’t necessarily a bad technique, but I think I would have found this book even more enjoyable if I had been afforded more than an occasional glimpse into that time period.  Overall though, Howe really set the bar high with her first novel and I wouldn’t hesitate to read any future novels she may publish.

With Halloween around the corner, I would suggest this as a great way to get into the fall spirit.  This book is the first on I’ve read for my participation in RIP IV.

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