The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

>> Thursday, January 19, 2012

TITLE: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
AUTHOR: Katherine Howe

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Voice

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

"Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?"

Connie Goodwin thinks her academic advisor is teasing her; she has mastered the scholarship surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692 and knows the question he poses is preposterous. She never suspects that answering it will alter everything she knows about the past, her family, and the professor himself.

Sent by her mother to prepare her long-deceased grandmother's home for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a decrepit dwelling filled with venerable oddities, including a collection of ancient bottles filled with peculiar liquids and powders. On her first night there, Connie chances on a crumbling bit of paper, bearing the words "Deliverance Dane," that has been carefully hidden inside a key tucked between the pages of a 300-year-old family Bible.

Combing the local church registry for traces of this mysterious name, Connie strikes up an acquaintance with Sam, a steeplejack engaged in the church s preservation. Together they piece together Deliverance's tragic story and learn of her precious book of spells and recipes for healing potions. When a series of sinister events threaten Sam's life, Connie's search for the book is transformed from scholarly pursuit to a matter of life and death -- and love.
I'm forever on the lookout for books that remind me of Barbara Michaels', but I stumbled upon this one completely by accident. I'm very glad I did. Although flawed, it was tremendously enjoyable and dealt with a historical period I didn't know all that much about and found fascinating.

Connie Goodwin has just passed the interrogation that's officially made her a doctoral candidate. All she needs now is a dissertation topic, something that interests her and that relies on original sources. Little does she know, when her mother asks her to clear out her late grandmother's house, that the perfect source material will be right there.

The house, in the small town of Marblehead, near Salem, is a bit of a hovel, and the job of sorting out valuables before the house can be sold seems monumental. But Connie is naturally drawn to the old books first, and it's there that she finds her first reference to "Deliverance Dane". Tugging at that first loose thread soon leads her to suspect that the mysterious Deliverance might have been a previously unknown woman involved in the Salem witch trials, and that she might have owned a book of spells that could still be out there. And since no book of spells from the time has ever been found, the potential is huge for a dissertation topic that will really get her well and truly started in her career.

With the help of a young man who befriends her, Connie begins the painstaking investigative work that she hopes will lead her to Deliverance Dane's book. But it's not all plain sailing: her dissertation supervisor is showing an unhealthily intense interest in her search, and after a while, Connie can't help but suspect that there is more to Deliverance's book than women writing out old wives' cures and playing at being witches.

I absolutely love the setup of having someone in the present investigating a story from the past, with the action moving between the two periods, but so very few authors do it well and get the balance right. Howe is one of those few. The action takes place mostly in the present, with the sparse sections set at the times of Deliverance and her descendents exactly enough to enrich the investigation and mirror and illustrate some of the developments in Connie's story.

I also loved that Connie had to do proper detective work to uncover what had gone on in Deliverance's time. The last few books I read with this setup (by Rachel Hore, whose ideas I like but whose execution I often find a bit disappointing) had the present-day protagonist just stumbling on stuff, and then doing nothing more strenuous than reading a diary. Connie isn't so lucky. She has to follow up on all sorts of sources, and since the book is set in 1991, this doesn't mean just going online and running a few searches. She needs to actually visit a variety of places and consult a whole lot of potential documents, from church archives to probate records, and when she does find something, she needs to interpret and decode what ambiguous records might mean and imply.

The only problem there was that, much as I liked the detective work, I think Howe underestimates her readers slightly, and unfortunately, Connie comes off as a bit of an idiot sometimes for not making the obvious connections. She's a doctoral candidate specialising in colonial history, for goodness sake, would it really take her so long to make the connection between an "Almanack" someone was really upset had been given away and the spellbook she was specifically reading that material to try to find? Plus, she's a little bit too trusting with her supervisor sometimes.

I was also a bit nonplussed by the direction in which Howe took her story, with certain things being a lot more real than I'd expected (hope I'm not being too obvious when I'm trying to be cryptic!). It wasn't that I didn't like it, really, more that I was expecting something different, both from what I'd heard about the book and from the sections I'd read. It was... interesting, I guess, but I thought if Howe had kept in the direction I was expecting, she might have had something even more fascinating.

Something I really ended up liking, though were the relationships in the book. There are a few false steps in the characterisations at the beginning, with people sounding a bit off (like, Connie is telling her new friend Sam about witches' brooms, and tells him that "a medieval witch on her way to a sabbath would strip off all her clothes". And Howe tells us that Sam "blanched" at that. Really? Really? The idea of a woman stripping off makes this actually quite lovely guy, untraditional enough to wear a nose ring, blanch?). It's minor stuff, but it was a bit distracting. However, Howe soon hits her stride, and things feel much more natural. I liked Connie and Sam's romance, but I think my favourite was the way Howe develops the concept of mother-daughter relationships, both through the way Connie and her initially stereotypically flaky New-Ager mum start to understand each other better, and through what we see in the historical sections.

All in all, the strengths were enough to make the weaknesses seem relatively unimportant, and I would recommend this.

MY GRADE: A B+.

2 comments:

Christine,  28 February 2012 17:41  

I just read this book as well and being a huge Barbara Michaels fan am always on the lookout for a book in a similar style. (The closest one I have found is Susanna Kearsley's book "The Shadowy Horses") I agree wholeheartedly that Connie frequently appeared a bit silly for taking so long to catch on to clues that seemed fairly obvious. I enjoyed the setting very much and knowing the areas she describes very well, feel Howe did a great job conveying the sense of place and how these towns not only look but smell and feel. I appreciated how she set the book almost at the anniversary of the witch trials (as there was a huge amount of activities related to them then and the dedication of a memorial to the victims) not only for the timing but because it allowed the heroine to do actual research and got around the modern mystery problems of  internet and cell phones. It reminded me of "The Thirteenth Tale" in that sense. Grade wise I am in agreement with you- a solid B+  I wish more books were being published in this vein.

rosario001,  29 February 2012 15:51  

Christine: I completely agree with every single thing you say in your comment. I, too, think The Shadowy Horses is as close to a vintage Barbara Michaels as it gets. Did you know Kearsley will be publishing a sort-of sequel soon (the protagonist is Robbie, who was the little boy in TSH). Here's hoping it will have a similar vibe!

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