The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Every year around this time I start to feel the pressure to find a good book club read. After over thirteen years in the same book club, I’ve already chosen most of my old favorites, so I start mining the shelves for something new and interesting. I picked up The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane because the cover is beautiful and the subject matter (the Salem Witch Trials) looked interesting. While it’s not a perfect read, I did really enjoy it. More importantly (as far as book club picks go, anyway) I think it will make for a good discussion.
Connie Goodwin is a Harvard grad student fresh off her oral exams and in need of a dissertation topic. She also discovers that she has another task on her hands: Preparing her deceased grandmother’s long-neglected house to go on the market. Oddly enough, these two sides of her life dovetail nicely. Her grandmother’s house is short on modern conveniences like electricity, but full of old books and bizarre paraphernalia. On her first night there, she finds a mysterious name in an old family bible: Deliverance Dane. As she researches her way across the greater Boston area, Connie finds evidence that Deliverance was accused of witchcraft – and left behind a spellbook. This is, of course, every historian’s wet dream.
As we follow Connie’s adventures and trace the spellbook across time, we also see flashes of the past. We hear from Deliverance and her progeny, and see parts of the Salem Witch Trials up close. Deliverance’s daughter Mercy plays a strong role, and we see much of the action from her perspective.
Naturally, finding the spellbook isn’t easy. Connie has some help along the way from a new man in her life – an attractive and endearing steeplejack named Sam – and in a more round-about way from her new age-y mom Grace. She also discovers that there is something singularly odd about her major professor, and that his interest in her research isn’t entirely altruistic. As matters come to a head, Connie learns that her ties to Deliverance and her line are stronger than she could have dreamed. But as her personal powers increase, she also finds that she and those she loves are in great danger.
Maybe it’s just me, but I swear books about grad students are everywhere these days. Back when I was a grad student, I never saw any. Not that I would have had time to read them, anyway. At any rate, this is not a trend I am tired of yet, particularly if the students in question are historians. That said, this book will invite inevitable comparisons if you are a Lauren Willig fan, particularly since both books share a present/past structure. Willig’s books have much more romance in them; this really is more fiction with a romance component. Also, I’d say the present to past ratio is exactly flip-flipped here; we see about as much Deliverance and witch trials as one would see of the modern Eloise in Willig’s books.
Overall, I enjoyed Physick Book. I really haven’t read a lot about the Salem Witch Trials since school. Obviously, it’s a subject that lends itself much better to historical fiction than a romance novel. The research was very well done, and the historical scenes are vivid. You can really feel as if you are there. I also have to admit my pride at recognizing Howe’s inspiration for Prudence’s (Deliverance’s granddaughter’s) diary – before reading about it in the postscript. It was Martha Ballard’s Diary, immortalized by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in A Midwife’s Tale – which won the Pulitzer Prize back when I was in college. It’s also a very good book, and one I’ve already made my book club read.
The only place this book really fell short for me was in Connie’s reactions. For a Harvard grad student, she really seems slow on the uptake sometimes. It takes her awhile to figure out that Prudence is a midwife, and it takes her forever to figure out that a receipt book, almanack, and spellbook might all be the same thing. Several times she makes “discoveries” long after I had figured it all out – and assumed she had too.
All in all, though, I think The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane has enough going for it to outweigh it’s occasional disadvantages. I think my book club will enjoy discussing the Witch Trials, as well as the idea of witches, cunning women, and magic. If you’re a history fan yourself, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well.