Book Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

deliveranceBy Katherine Howe

Hardcover, 384 pages
Hyperion Press
June 09, 2009
 

This book caught my eye on the New Fiction shelf early this summer but I passed on it at the time because I could barely carry the stack that I was already buying that day.  Recently I passed by it again and couldn’t help but be drawn to its tantalizing cover and unique title.  I immediately scooped it up without bothering to re-read the jacket.

Katherine Howe’s debut novel is about a subject that I’ve always found terrifying and fascinating – the Salem witch trials.  The book is centered around Connie Goodwin, a Harvard grad student struggling to keep her sanity amid gut-wrenching qualifying exams, hounding professors and bottomless dissertation research. 

When she gets a call from her free-spirited, new-age mother asking her to get her late grandmother’s ramshackle house ready to put on the market, Connie reluctantly agrees.  She moves in, planning to spend her summer putting the house in order and doing some much needed research for her dissertation on colonial America.  Early in her stay, Connie stumbles onto a mysterious key, holding a tiny slip of paper bearing the words, Deliverance Dane.

With constant pressure from her advisor, Professor Chilton, to find a new original source for her dissertation, Connie throws herself into a non-stop investigation to learn more about Deliverance Dane, who turns out to be a previously unknown victim of the Salem witch trials,  and the discovery of a centuries-old book that could contain the key to unlocking the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone and the promise of eternal life. 

Soon she comes to realize that a lot more is on the line than her dissertation, and after fellow history buff/romantic interest, Sam Hartley, is stricken with a fatal illness with little hope of recovering, it becomes clear to Connie that finding the book will be a matter of life or death.

 The book is told partially from Connie’s point of view in the early 1990’s, and partially from the perspectives of various players in Salem in the late 17th to early 18th centuries.  The parts in the past bring clues to life as the mystery of the elusive physick book of Deliverance Dane slowly unfolds.  As Connie uncovers the truth about the role of Deliverance and her family during the famed witch hysteria, the more she discovers about her own family history and the magical powers that were passed down through the generations.

 I really liked this book with its illuminating flashes to the past, fast-paced plot and likeable characters.  Howe’s writing style isn’t too flowery or descriptive – it’s to the point and yet descriptive enough to be able to picture yourself in every scene, whether being up to your elbows in a dusty archive or enduring unspeakable horrors in a stinking, overcrowded cell. 

It was easy to sympathize with the characters and the chapters that took place in the 17th centuries were especially interesting to me because they – like Howe’s general perception of the Salem witch trials – were so unlike anything that I had ever read on the topic.  And instead of focusing on how the hysteria was a result of scapegoating social issues in a Puritanical world (where if someone became ill it was because they had sinned), Howe points out that it was much more than that.  These people believed in witchcraft and witches – they genuinely thought that their neighbors were entering into evil pacts with the devil in order to do harm.  It was definitely a refreshing take on a typically one-sided subject.

The only gripe I had was with the Chilton character.  I don’t want to give too much away but his motives and actions throughout the book felt too forced and weren’t quite believable.  But overall, it was a great book and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting and entertaining mystery with a historical twist.

On a quick side note, I thought it was interesting that Howe is a descendant of two of the accused Salem witches, Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe.

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10 Comments »

  1. I’ve looked at this a few times and passed it by, although I have also been interested in the Salem Witch Trials. Thanks for your review – I think I’ll give it another look!

    • Jamye Said:

      Let me know what you think if you decide to try it!

  2. Karoline Said:

    Have this on my library takeout list 🙂 great review and wonderful blog. 😀

    • Jamye Said:

      Thanks, Karoline! I’m going to add your blog to my blogroll if you don’t mind…

  3. Jody Said:

    A friend gave this to me after she’d finished it, but I had no idea what it was about. Your review makes it sound pretty interesting. Thanks!

  4. Jamye Said:

    Cool, let me know how you like it! Love your blog, you mind if I add it to my blogroll?

    • Jody Said:

      Thanks. Please do! We are always looking for more readers and people to talk books with!

      • Jamye Said:

        Oh good because I jumped the gun and already added you. 🙂

    • Jody Said:

      Thanks. I’m really enjoying your blog too.

      Please add us! We are always looking for more readers and people to talk books with!

      • Jody Said:

        Sorry for the double post. Didn’t realize it went through the first time.


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