Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Howe)

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane 
Katherine Howe, 2009
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781401341336

A spellbinding, beautifully written novel that moves between contemporary times and one of the most fascinating and disturbing periods in American history—the Salem witch trials.

Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key secreted within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest to find out who this woman was, and to unearth a rare colonial artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge of herbs and other, stranger things.

As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past then she could have ever imagined.

Written with astonishing conviction and grace, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane travels seamlessly between the trials in the 1690s, and a modern woman's story of mystery, intrigue, and revelation. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—ca. 1977-78
 Where—Houston, Texas, USA 
Education—B.A., Columbia University; M.A., Boston   
  University (completing Ph.D. at Boston U.)
Currently—lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts

Katherine Howe's ancestors settled Essex County, Massachusetts, in the 1620s and stayed there through the 20th century. Family members included Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the Salem witch trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not.

Katherine is completing a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies at Boston University, which included teaching a research seminar on New England witchcraft. The idea for her debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, developed while she was studying for her doctoral qualifying exams, walking her dog through the woods between Marblehead and Salem. She lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts with her husband and assorted animals.

From a 2009 Barnes & Noble interview:

• I had a diverse array of pre-academia jobs, including late-night experimental music disc jockey, teaching assistant at a science museum, Madison Avenue shop girl, and researcher at the Museum of Modern Art. This means that at various moments in time I have, for professional reasons, fed dead mice to a corn snake, have handled world class artwork, have been asked to please stop playing so much Captain Beefheart, and have tried to fit fragile silk chiffon over too-perky breast implants. It also means that I have learned that children love corn snakes, that art museums do a vital service to our culture, that sale shopping is terrifying for everyone involved, and that the hour from three to four AM is the hardest.

• I often play a game with myself that I have started to call "time travel tourism." I will be walking along in Boston or Cambridge, and I will imagine what would happen if, all of a sudden, I stepped through some kind of time fabric rip and found myself on the exact spot where I was standing—but in, say, 1877. How would people react to seeing a woman suddenly appear in blue jeans and a pea coat? Would anyone accept the cash I was carrying? Where could I go for help? Would the hologram on my driver's license prove that I was from the future? If I couldn't get back, how would I support myself? A lot of my writing grows out of these kinds of thought experiments.

• A few years ago my husband and I adopted a shaggy orange mutt, who is the rather transparent inspiration for Arlo in Physick Book. Like Arlo, he is of indeterminate size and color, depending on his mood, and like Arlo, he is both brave and noble while also being kind of a wimp. He also tends to show up unexpectedly under my desk or in the armchair that I have just left to get something to eat. I take him walking in the woods with me, and when I sit on my favorite rock to think, he will sit with his back to mine, keeping watch.

• A few years ago Douglas Coupland wrote an essay called "Harolding in West Vancouver," about his habit of poking around in graveyards ("Harolding" comes from the cult film Harold and Maude, in which the morbid title character likes to hang out in graveyards). I also enjoy Harolding, especially in the very old graveyards and burying grounds scattered around New England. The iconography on colonial headstones has been the subject of a good amount of scholarship—weeping willows, cherubic angel faces, skulls and crossbones. I enjoy the quiet in graveyards, and in wondering about the back stories of the people who are buried there.

• This past summer my husband and I bought our first house, and so, whether I want to or not, I have discovered gardening. We planted a few tomato plants, just to see what would happen, and to our surprise the tomatoes entirely took over one whole wall of the kitchen. We had so many tomatoes that we started bringing plastic bags of them, unsolicited, whenever we went to friends' houses for dinner. Big tomatoes, small tomatoes, pink tomatoes, yellow tomatoes—and the passage describing the tomato plants in Physick Book had been written a year earlier! Physick Book also features a character who is a steeplejack, or someone who restores antique church steeples. We live across the street from a meeting house, and one afternoon I was working in the garden and heard scraping coming from some indeterminate place. I looked up and saw a man on a scaffold around the steeple, scraping off all the old paint: a steeplejack at work. I think living here is going to make me superstitious.

When asked what book most influenced her career as a writer here is her response:

When I was about 13, a friend of my parents gave me a copy of he Writing Life by Annie Dillard. It was, quite frankly, way over my head at the time, but I already thought of myself as a writer by then, had already learned that writing was an activity on which I absolutely depended, and so I was determined to absorb from it what I could. What struck me first was the spareness of Dillard's language; like a lot of people I have to force myself not to use too many adjectives or adverbs, and as a teenager that problem was especially acute. Dillard writes with a clarity and precision that astonishes me, and I still spend time with her sentences to see how she is able to accomplish so much in such an efficient space.

Of course, the book itself is also a meditation on the act of being a writer, or on writing as an activity in everyday life. She captures the fear that undergirds the practice of writing, which is something I did not fully understand until recently. Revision, Dillard says, is the rebuilding of a house; at times, a supporting wall must come down, and there is nothing that you can do about it but grab a sledgehammer, swing, and duck. It takes courage to throw out bad work, she is saying, and seeing another writer name and confront that fear helps me to confront my own. Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
This charming novel is both a tale of New England grad-student life in 1991 and the Salem witch hunts in 1692.... I liked this book very much, but I want to ask the author's editor to please, in the future, keep her from wrapping or folding her characters' arms around their middles. And also point out that Connie's shoulder bag gets dropped on the floor so often it begins to sound like a character itself. But these are minor complaints. And by the end of this book, as any graduate student should, Katherine Howe has filled us in on much more than we used to know about that group of unfortunate women who paid the price of their lives due to a town's irrational fears.
Carolyn See - Washington Post

Set in Cambridge and Marblehead, Mass., Howe's propulsive if derivative novel alternates between the 1991 story of college student Connie Goodwin and a group of 17th-century outcasts. After moving into her grandmother's crumbling house to get it in shape for sale, Connie comes across a small key and piece of paper reading only "Deliverance Dane." The Salem witch trials, contemporary Wicca and women's roles in early American history figure prominently as Connie does her academic detective work. What follows is a breezy read in which Connie must uncover the mystery of a shadowy book written by the enigmatic Deliverance Dane. During Connie's investigation, she relies on a handsome steeplejack for romance and her mother and an expert on American colonial history for clues and support. While the twisty plot and Howe's habit of ending chapters with cliffhangers are straight out of the thriller playbook, the writing is solid overall, and Howe's depiction of early American life and the witch trials should appeal to readers who enjoyed The Heretic's Daughter. The witchcraft angle and frenetic pacing beg for a screen adaptation.
Publishers Weekly

Howe's debut novel explores the Salem witch trials from the perspective of Connie Goodwin, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard. While cleaning out her grandmother's house near Salem in the summer of 1991, Connie discovers an old key along with a fragment of paper bearing only the words Deliverance Dane. At the urging of her adviser, Connie embarks upon a frenzy of research in local archives. Evidence mounts that Deliverance was a local herbalist and wise woman who became a victim of the witch trials. Finding Deliverance's "physick book" of recipes becomes a priority for Connie, particularly when she realizes that it may hold the key to curing her new boyfriend of his mysterious ailment. Howe inserts short interludes featuring Deliverance and her descendants, adding depth to the story. Howe's own connection to Salem (two of her ancestors were accused of witchcraft) adds a welcome personal touch. This enjoyable novel is too slow-paced to be considered a thriller, but it's a solid selection that may appeal to readers who enjoyed recent novels about Salem's witches (i.e., Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader and Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter).
Laura Bliss - Library Journal

(Starred review.) Historian Howe’s spellbinding, vividly detailed, witty, and astutely plotted debut is deeply rooted in her family connection to accused seventeenth-century witches Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor and propelled by an illuminating view of witchcraft. In all a keen and magical historical mystery laced with romance and sly digs at society’s persistent underestimation of women. —Donna Seaman

A first novel about alchemy, magic and witchcraft, set unsurprisingly in Salem, Mass., in the late 17th century and also, perhaps surprisingly, in Marblehead, Mass., in 1991. Connie Goodwin has just passed her doctoral oral exam in colonial American history at Harvard, and she looks forward to working with her mentor, Professor Manning Chilton, on breaking new ground in her dissertation. Then Connie gets an unexpected call from her New Age-y mother Grace, who is about to lose the house in Marblehead she inherited from her own mother because she's neglected for 20 years to pay the taxes on it-can Connie get it cleaned up and on the market for her? The house is, of course, eerie as well as abandoned. As Connie begins to look through Granna's house, she picks up an old Bible that gives her both an otherworldly feeling and an electric charge. Out of the Bible falls an antique key with a tiny scroll bearing the cryptic words "Deliverance Dane." Ever the good historian, Connie begins to track down the name. Eventually she finds allusions to a "Physick Book": a manual of medicine used by knowledgeable women in the colonial era, but also a book of spells. The volume seems ever more elusive as Connie's desire grows stronger to track it down. She's also feeling some uncomfortable pressure from Professor Chilton, who wants the book as badly as Connie, ostensibly because he thinks it will be helpful in a scholarly presentation he plans to make but more overtly because he seems to have some sinister agenda of his own. Howe alternates her narrative between Connie's groping attempts to track down the truth about the past and flashbacks to the real story of Deliverance Dane. We learn that she was a witch condemned in the 17th century, desperate for good reasons to keep her book hidden from ecclesiastical authorities. Informative, though not as creepy as it purports to be.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. The story follows several sets of mothers and daughters: Connie and Grace, Grace and Sophia, Deliverance and Mercy, Mercy and Prudence. How do these mother/daughter relationships differ from one another? How are they the same? Did you identify with one set more than the others?

2. Most of the main characters in the novel are women. How have women’s roles changed from the 17th century to the 20th century? What about their obligations and opportunities?

3. As an historian, Connie likes to interpret the past in light of the present. Sam, however, is a preservationist: he likes to keep the past intact, sometimes at the expense of the present. How are their opposing feelings about the past made apparent? Would you classify yourself as an historian or a preservationist?

4. How do some of the buildings, such as Saltonstall Court, the Harvard Faculty Club, and the Milk Street House, function as characters in the story?

5. Discuss the role of Arlo in the novel. Does he share characteristics with the "cunning folk" in Connie’s past?

6. What role does religion play in the novel? Is Christianity contradictory or complementary to magic in this story?

7. Do you think magic, as represented in this book, exists in the real world? If so, how does it manifest itself? Do we use different terms to describe it today?

8. Deliverance has a chance to escape with her daughter the night before she is put to death. Why does she make the choice she does?

9. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is the latest in a long line of books about witchcraft in Salem. Why do you think we’re still so enthralled by this moment in history? What does Salem have to teach us about our culture today?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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