Katherine Howe: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

by Rachel Baker on April 10, 2009

I’m fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, and why they happened.  So, when I had the opportunity to review The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Voice, June 9, 2009), I jumped at the chance.  This book is a completely different type of book than The Heretics DaughterThe Heretics Daughter is written from the perspective of an executed “witch’s” daughter.  The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is telling the story about a grad student about to start working on her PhD dissertation on the historical period.

I find it most fascinating how we “romanticize” the possibility that maybe one of our ancestors was quite possibly caught up in the Salem Trials.  This is in no way shape or form a knock on authors who have found through research they are in fact a descendant.  I’m just saying I think its interesting when we read a book about someone related to the witch trials, its always about an ancestor, what she went through and how that changes the person’s life for the better once they know.  Doesn’t that seem odd?  One of the things I really liked about this book, is the question “What if they really were witches?”  What if the trials didn’t actually happen because of a shift in religious beliefs in the colonies?  What if the women really did bewitch other people? 

By all rights, Deliverance Dane was, in fact, a witch – she was a medicine woman of sorts.  She used herbs to cure illness and was able to devise potions out of these herbs.  Isn’t that a witch? So, how would that REALLY effect someone’s life to know that through your whole history, the women in your family were witches and you never had the ability to look at it for what it was in regards to your mother?  And how does that effect the popular historical thoughts of what really happened? The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was interesting because it touches on some of the questions historians have had regarding why the Salem Trials took place, without going too academic.

The book is an easy read with some good historical information.  The time period of the story jumps between 1991 and a period of time which starts at 1682, and these jumps do add to the storyline.  The backstory of 1682 and beyond is a short time period in Deliverance Dane’s as well as her daughter’s and granddaughter’s story, but adds enough to understand the Dane lineage and how it became what it was.  It answered questions I had after I began to figure out where the story was going and why the grad student was involved.

Frankly, I thought this would be a bit different than it was regarding the plot.  It turns out the story is another my great great great (add a few more greats here) grandmother was a witch type of stories, but in fairness its done differently.  I thought the main character, Connie Goodwin, was a bit unbelievable.  For having so much potential academically (what we are led to believe), she was extremely obtuse about putting together her personal history which was intertwined in the exact area of her expertise.  I was floored that I figured out this story was about her lineage and how it related to the Salem Trials way sooner than she did.  Throughout the whole book, there were a ton of clues that someone who had studied this time period would have come across as symbols of witch-i-ness (is that a word?).  In my opinion, Connie’s supposed academic expertise in the subject was not relative to how she was portrayed.  She did, however, handle the research part of who Deliverance Dane was and where the book might be in accordance with how an academic would do research.

Though I was disenchanted by the inconsistency in Connie Goodwin’s character, I do think The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was a good read.  I read it over a weekend, mostly in one day.  I was drawn into the story, and was interested to see who this Deliverance Dane was and how the name ended up on a tiny piece of paper in an antique key stuffed in a bible.  I was also interested in the history of the house Connie was asked to fix up for sale and why it was stuck in the middle of the woods unseen by the average passerby.

For the most part, the book was well-written and an interesting story.  If you are a fan of books about the Salem Trials or stories about witches with a bit of historical perspective, then this is a good book for your collection.  The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe will be in bookstores June 9.

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