The beautiful cover of this book caught my eye as I passed by the bargain book table at Barnes and Noble; and after a quick glance told me that it was a supernatural puzzler about the Salem witch trials, well, I was sold.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe is about Connie Goodwin, a Harvard graduate student studying American colonial history who has just been accepted into the doctoral program. Her plans of spending the summer researching for her dissertation are turned upside down when she is asked to move into her grandmother’s dilapidated 17th century home in Salem to clean it up and ready it for market. The home doesn’t have electricity or a phone, and is chock full of history, which is right up Connie’s alley, and it’s here that she stumbles upon an old bible containing a key and the name “Deliverance Dane.” She learns that Deliverance was tried as a witch during the Salem witch trials, and also that she was in possession of a “book of receipts,” which Connie is determined to get her hands on as an original source for her research.
The story jumps back and forth between 1991 Massachusetts and the late 1600’s/early 1700’s as we find out that Connie is descended from a long line of cunning women. The book gets a little more interesting when Connie meets Sam Hartley, a young historical preservationist currently working as a Steeplejack, who takes an immediate interest in both Connie and her quest and hastens to join in the search. Through the back stories about Connie’s ancestors, we learn that the significant other of each cunning woman suffered a premature death and come to realize that the lovable Sam will soon be in danger. Connie has to track down Deliverance Dane’s physick book in order to save Sam.
My overall opinion of this book is that I enjoyed it, but there was definitely something off about it that makes me pause ever so briefly before saying that. It held my interest and thoughts of it floated through my head while I was at work; and I always enjoy rich historical descriptions about the Salem witch trials. At times however, Howe’s writing style sort of read like a textbook about colonial history (again, which wasn’t a problem for me) but something about her phrasing/wording just didn’t flow smoothly. My main gripe is with Connie and the descriptions of life as a Harvard grad student, both of which came across as pretentious and highfalutin. When my mind starts to envision preppy men with sweaters tied around their necks and tennis rackets slung over their shoulders… it’s not good for me.
Also, when it came time to hit the library in search of Deliverance’s book, it seemed like Connie, having just completed her Master’s in history at Harvard, should have been more familiar with things and such a task would be old hat. I realize I’m being a little harsh, and I should cut her some slack since her mind was preoccupied by a new distraction: Sam. I totally fell for Sam. It’s not everyday that a girl runs into a ruggedly sexy Steeplejack complete with rappelling gear and ponytail, right? I even let it slide that he nicknames her Cornell because of her “second-tier-school attitude” (gag!). Sam’s easy-going, warm personality is a nice contrast to Connie’s uptight attitude and he thankfully loosens her up a bit.
It has its flaws and the ending is a bit hokey, but I would still recommend this book if for no other reason than the generous historical details and descriptions. I respect Howe’s idea to look at the Salem witch trials as if “witches” really did exist, instead of the standard perspective that the trials were rooted in the baseless accusations of a paranoid religious community or hapless little girls afflicted with hallucinations after eating moldy grains. And props to the cover artist for making this gorgeous book completely covet-worthy.