The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
What if at least some of the women condemned in the Salem Witch Trials were actually guilty?
This is the (rhetorical) question posed to Connie during her oral exams, by her faculty advisor Manning Chilton. Connie is a doctoral candidate in Colonial history, unsure exactly on what topic she wants to write her thesis. Inspiration falls on her as if from the sky when she is asked by her mother to fix up her grandmother’s dilapidated old house. While working on the house, Connie pulls an old family Bible from the bookshelf and out falls an antique key, stuffed with a piece of paper bearing the name “Deliverance Dane.” This sets Connie off on an adventure both personal and scholarly to find Deliverance’s Physick, or Recipe Book.
This story is told primarily in the present (well, 1991, so the relative present) with flashbacks to the late 17th to mid-18th centuries. The sections in the past begin with the first accusation against Deliverance of witchcraft, well before the Salem Witch Trials, and move briefly through the lives of her daughter Mercy and granddaughter Prudence. It is clear from the beginning the Deliverance is what would be considered a ‘cunning woman‘ – and likely her daughter and granddaughter are as well – but was she really a witch? This is a question explored both by Connie in her research and the reader in the book’s flashbacks.
One of the great things about this book is that there was a sense of urgency in Connie’s research due to her need to find her primary source and begin her work, but it wasn’t a clock ticking sort of situation (although some extra, shall we say ‘motivation’ is given to Connie nearer the end of the book) that felt contrived.
This was an incredibly enjoyable story, although it wasn’t as much historical fiction as I thought it would be, most of the action took place in the present with the flashbacks distributed among three generations of women. Historical fiction or not, though, this was a book that made me really want to just stay home from work and read. I then proceeded to take the book on my errands with me and whip it out every time I had at least a 2 minute waiting period.
“The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” is a little spooky, a little historical, and a lot awesome. Check it out.