I’ve been on an academic/paranormal kick these days. After finishing A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness which I’ll review later, I picked up Katherine Howe’s 2009 novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. After reading both books back to back, I have to say that “Physick” is my favorite of the two, despite the global popularity of “Discovery.” Although both books deal with the subject of witchcraft, Howe’s novel is more subtle, but even eerier than Harkness’s “Discovery” due to its understated quality.
“Physick” shifts seamlessly between two worlds: 1991 Massachusetts and 17th century Salem where the witch trials have reached fever pitch. In the present, doctoral candidate Connie Goodwin is preparing for her oral exams in Colonial and New England History. Howe was also studying for her oral exams when she first began her imaginings of “Physick” and the scene in which Connie sits for her exams could only have been written by someone who has gone through the ordeal. I even found myself breaking a sweat as Connie answers painfully intricate questions about New England history that only the most diligent scholar would know.
After her exams, Connie is made caretaker of her grandmother’s old home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Again, Howe drew from personal life, having moved to Marblehead with her husband in 2005. The home has been vacant for years and has no electricity or telephone service. As Connie fixes up the house, she comes across a hollowed out key which holds a fragile piece of parchment with the name “Deliverance Dane” scrawled on it. Like all good academics, Connie is curious, and so begins her search for Deliverance Dane, a possible victim of the Salem Witch trials that perhaps was not as innocent as the other men and women who senselessly lost their lives. In fact, Connie herself might possess powers that not even she is aware of.
I should note here that another interesting twist in Howe’s own story is that she is related to Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe who were both accused of witchcraft. Elizabeth Proctor was released from prison in 1693. Elizabeth Howe was hanged along with four other women on July 19th, 1692.
Woven in with Connie’s quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane is a power struggle with her academic advisor, Manning Chilton, whose interest in Connie’s research might be more for his own gain than hers, as well as a romantic entanglement with a local steeplejack which gives some enjoyable lightness to the book. Howe also shifts back in time to examine the lives of Deliverance Dane and her heirs who had to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the trials.
Howe’s work is a prime example that academics can also be creative. She develops a complex plot with witty dialogue, and pulls from personal experience to create an engaging story. I haven’t had the honor of meeting Howe, but I have watched several interviews and follow her on Twitter, and she is absolutely delightful. Being an academic, she is able to give a good deal of historical context regarding the choices she makes in her work.
If you enjoy The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, you’ll want to check out Howe’s second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving excellent reviews and is set shortly after the sinking of the Titanic. Howe is also working on a third novel that I am eagerly awaiting.
For more information about Katherine Howe and her books, you can visit her website: katherinehowe.com, Facebook page: facebook.com/katherinebhowe, or Twitter:@katherinebhowe