Katherine Howe's debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was one of the surprise best-sellers of the past few years, made all the more so because of the strange title. In fact, the first time I saw the cover I thought it was about physics (fortunately I took the time to actually read the publisher's synopsis on the inside cover). Yet even clearing up the premise did not prepare me for how good, and original, this novel would be.
The story actually has dual protagonists: Connie Goodwin, a Harvard graduate student in 1991, and Deliverance Dane, a woman in late 1600s Salem, Massachusetts. And while Connie's storyline takes up the majority of the novel, the sections featuring Deliverance Dane (and later her daughter and granddaughter) are by far the most compelling. It is in these vignettes that the reader learns a great deal about life in Salem at the time of the Witch Trials, and the lives of women in that society.
The plot starts out in a very straightforward manner: during summer break from grad school, Connie moves to her late grandmother's house in Marblehead (near Salem) to prepare the long-abandoned property to be sold. While there, she comes across an old key in a family Bible; inside the key is an ancient scrap of paper with two words on it: Deliverance Dane. This begins a search to discover who this woman was, which leads to a search for her "physick book," which is in reality a spell book. Connie sees this original source material as perfect for her doctoral dissertation, if only she can find it and at the same time avoid the malevolent presence that seems to lurk on the edges of her perception.
In spite of the fact that Katherine Howe is herself a doctoral candidate in New England Studies, the vast amount of historical detail she provides fits seamlessly into the story. The obligatory love-story subplot is actually both interesting and vital to the resolution of the tale, and Howe's cliffhanger chapter endings kept me turning the pages long into the night.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane will definitely cause you to rethink the long-held, nearly mythic stereotypes we have about both the Salem Witch Trials and "witchcraft" itself. Yet it happens so gradually as the story unfolds that by the end you may find yourself believing in magic just a little more than you did at the start of the book. Regardless, it is a wonderful first novel by an author that we can only hope will have a long publishing career.