My adventures in pregnancy, motherhood and beyond

Please enjoy the musings and updates and leave me a comment if you'd like!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

From the moment I saw The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, I knew I wanted to read it, and the inside flap only confirmed that. The book deals with what I consider one of the most fascinating period of American history, the Salem witch trials. In addition, the book's narrative switches between the past and the present (well, the relative present), which I've begun to take as a sign that a book will be to my liking. Ever since Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, I've searched out books like that, and have always been happy with the results.

The Salem witch panic has always fascinated me, for many different reasons. The sheer panic caused by one word, the loss of innocent lives, the lack of remorse the girls had for their part in it, it was astounding. I think I was the only middle schooler that checked out the non-fiction books on the witch trials at my school, but those books seemed to sympathize with the girls, painting them as the victims. Perhaps not the victims of bewitchment, but victims of the social and religious tensions at the time. To me, the victims have always been those accused of witchcraft. This book seems to highlight the thesis I defended in my paper about the differences between magic and religion: magic is simply the 'other,' which in another context would be considered religion. In fact, the most common explanation regarding certain of the accused is that they were cunning women, who were like medicine women, the precursors to modern physicians.

The book switches between the 1990's and the past, following a line of women down through the centuries. Connie Goodwin is a graduate student in American Colonial history who has just been accepted into Harvard's PhD program, and is spending the summer doing her mother a favour over the summer by cleaning up and attempting to sell her grandmother's house in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Her attention is caught by a scrap of paper bearing the name Deliverance Dane, hidden inside a key, which fell out of the family Bible. This leads her on a chase after a new, original source from that period, which suggests that perhaps it was not just the social and religious tensions that led to the Salem witch panic, but that perhaps certain people were practicing what was considered witchcraft at the time. This intersects with what then becomes her research, and a cast of characters is drawn into the story: her advisor, Manning Chilton, co-advisor, Janine Silva, friend, Liz, mother, Grace, dog, Aldo, romantic interest, Sam. The characters, no matter how small the part are all thought out and colourfully drawn. The interactions between them never seem contrived (unless they're supposed to be a bit strained) and the book has a feel of genuine story-telling that one can get lost in.

Though I've had this book on my 'to-read' shelf for quite a while, I only picked it up a few days ago. It isn't an easy read, but it isn't dry or boring either. It captivates the reader and transports them into the worlds of the characters, be it the 1990's and Connie or the 1690's and Deliverance or Mercy Dane. While I'm not historian, the historical interludes seem to be historically accurate, and the reader can see the effort, thought and research the author put into those sections. There are some unanswered questions at the end, but nothing that will nag at me like those questions left by the Exorcist. Though the ending wasn't a surprise to me, there were a few twists I wasn't expecting, and the book still kept me glued to it page after page, until the last word was read.

If you enjoy historical novels with a bit of the supernatural thrown in, this book is right up your alley. It's not completely stuck in the past, but the interactions with and the connections with the present are fascinating and fun to explore. It's a book that will last you more than a day; I spread out my reading over about 5 days or so and enjoyed every time I pulled back a new layer of the mystery. The story was far too easy to get lost in, and I had vivid dreams of living in a romanticized version of those historical parts (with computers however, but my dreams should be the study of a research project). The characters are genuine and likeable (or hateable, if they're the antagonist) and the story moves along at a good pace, with the author seeming to have a sixth sense regarding when to put in the historic bits and when to leave the reader hanging for more. I would definitely pick up this book; it is worth the money (even worth the price of a hardback novel!)


  1. "...those books seemed to sympathize with the girls, painting them as the victims. Perhaps not the victims of bewitchment, but victims of the social and religious tensions at the time. To me, the victims have always been those accused of witchcraft."

    Agreed. However:

    One current theory regarding the girls who were believed to be victims of witchcraft or demonic possession at the time of the Salem Witch Trials is that they were, in fact, totally tripping balls.

    It is likely that they ate bread contaminated with a toxic fungus called ergot (Claviceps purpura), which is parasitic to grains like rye and wheat. According to the fascinating book "Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities" by Amy Stewart (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009), symptoms of ergot poisoning include "seizures, nausea, uterine contractions, and eventually gangrene and death... bad LSD-like trips... Hysteria, hallucinations, and a feeling that something is crawling on the skin" (page 44). Some victims even experienced a horrible burning sensation that left them with blisters, peeling skin, and gangrene; with the cause undiscovered at the time, this was known as St. Anthony's fire.

    Regarding the Trials, Amy Stewart had this to say: "If only someone had questioned the town baker. Judging from weather records, crop reports, the girls' symptoms, and the fact that the hysteria stopped almost as abruptly as it started, it is entirely possible that the whole event was caused by an outbreak of ergot brought on by an unusually wet winter" (page 45).


    Love your posts, dear. :o)

  2. "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" moves back and forth between the past and the present, and the author crafts a compelling storyline in each century. Katherine Howe is a wonderful author, and I look forward to reading more of her work.