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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane: A new twist to the story of the Salem witch trials

April 5, 2009

We all know about the Salem witch trials of 1692, but Katherine Howe — whose ancestry traces back to two of the women accused as witches — brings a new twist to the story. As The Dante Club author Matthew Pearl says of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Our society has always asked what drove the accusers to ruin so many lives. There’s another question we don’t dare to ask: what if the women really were witches? 

Connie Goodwin, a Harvard PhD candidate, plans to spend her summer researching her dissertation when she is tasked with cleaning up and selling her grandmother’s abandoned house in Marblehead, Mass. (about 10 minutes from Salem). While exploring the house, Connie finds an antique key between the pages of an old Bible, and inside they key is a tiny, rolled up piece of parchment on which is written: Deliverance Dane. Believing the name could lead to the primary source Connie needs for her dissertation, she embarks on a research journey that changes her in ways she never imagined.

Interspersed with Connie’s story are “interludes”, chapters focusing on Deliverance Dane and the “cunning” women of her family in 17th-century Salem. As a student of colonial America, Connie knows much more about the history and culture of the time period than common readers; the interludes allow us to experience the characters, scenes and events rather than learn about them through Connie’s explanations. The jumps between centuries are never distracting and Howe, herself a student of American and New England history, provides wonderfully detailed descriptions of the time, especially clothing and rooms. 

Soon, Connie’s research directs her to Deliverance’s lost “physick” book of recipes and spells, an exciting primary source possibility. But as Connie starts having strange waking-dreams of her grandmother, and her academic advisor grows increasingly insistent that she find the book, she begins to suspect it of holding much more than material for her dissertation. Her quest to find the physick book of Deliverance Dane leads her to discover not only the woman behind the name, but a greater truth behind the Salem witch trials, her own ancestry and herself. 

My only (minor) frustration with the story was that at a few points in Connie’s research, her next step was clear to me pages before she figured it out herself. And since Connie is a very bright student and skilled researcher, it’s extra painful waiting for her to catch up. 

Nevertheless, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a spellbinding tale infused with history, discovery, and magic — an enormously entertaining book that I couldn’t wait to start and then couldn’t put down. 

What makes the book an even greater read are its physical features. I love the cover, which invokes mystery, history, secrets, botany, manuscripts, time…

deliverancedane

The inside flap started to get in the way about half-way through (I assume the flap is only on the ARCs) but I liked the slight texture of the cover and the thick, sturdy pages. 

The book isn’t for sale until June, so keep your eyes out for some marketing goodies — a Web site (rather sparse at the moment, but it says more content is coming soon), advance reading promotions (which is how I landed a copy), a Facebook presence (so far, only a profile for Connie that you can’t access unless you friend her), an author video (they should really get this up on the Web site) and a widget (apparently yet to come, unfortunately. I’m really curious to see it). 

Verdict: Put it on your to-buy list and start planning a trip. If you’ve never been to Salem (or, even if you have), this book will inspire a visit.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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