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Cannonball Read #10: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

12/07/2009

I really enjoyed The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. The book takes place both in 1991 and the late 17th century. Normally I have a hard time when novels switch either viewpoint or timeframe from chapter to chapter, but this was done quite well.

Connie Goodwin is supposed to be spending the summer doing her doctoral research, but her mother asks her to clean out her grandmother’s abandoned home near Salem and get it ready to be sold. As Connie is looking through the books on the bookshelves, she finds an old Bible with a key in it. Wrapped around the key is a slip of paper with the name “Deliverance Dane” on it. It piques Connie’s interest and leads her to find out that Deliverance Dane was a real person, and she tries to find out more about Deliverance’s fate. Connie’s investigation starts to consume more and more of her time, and she neglects the cleaning out of the house, and more importantly, her dissertation. After learning that there was a book of receipts (recipes) that Deliverance passed down to her daughter, Connie begins to search for the book itself. A local historian becomes a love interest, Connie’s faculty advisor becomes more adamant that she finish her research, and the house becomes a location where some weird, supernatural stuff starts to happen.

Interspersed with Connie’s story are chapters taking place in Salem during the late 17th century, focusing on Deliverance and her daughter. We do find out what happens to Deliverance and an idea of what life was like for those accused of witchcraft. We meet major characters from the witch trials, and Howe paints a picture of life during that time well. The characters spoke in an approximation of the accent of the time, though that was a little hard to understand.

The “modern” timeframe worked well, for example the characters didn’t have cell phones and not all of the historic documents were digitized, so Connie had to get very hands on in her research. I vividly remember standing in a scorchingly hot public phonebooth trying to reach someone, so Connie’s frustration during her conversations with her hippy mother really resonated for me. And card catalogs? Younger readers may not remember those long drawers filled with index cards listing out the library’s holdings. I remember how smoothly they slid out, and how some of them were jam packed with cards. Some of the language was a bit too obvious. Connie’s “bark-colored braid,” for example – and just what color IS that? Gray? White? Brown? – is also noted in one of the characters in the 17th century chapter. Yes, that person is Connie’s ancestor, and they both have weird colored hair!

These awkward moments ultimately didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the novel, thankfully. The twists and turns, and eventual outcome, made the novel interesting enough to continue, and made me race through to the end.

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