Despite the obvious and predictable appearance of a rather dastardly villain of the Snidely Whiplash variety, the content of "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane," a novel by Katherine Howe delivers a potent and sad message that bears extensive thought.
The story, itself, engages with interesting and finely drawn characters that center around the "historical mystery puzzled out by a notable scholar" plot quest that came to mainstream fruition with Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" and literary perfection in A.S. Byatt's "Possession." In "Physick--the title refers to an almanac of sorts written by a "witch" or "cunning woman" of the 17th century, in none other than Salem, Massachusetts. The actual "Physick" is a compilation of time-trusted "instructions" that one would attribute to a witch's grimoire. Spells to ward off sickness and other maladies are listed along step-by-steps to cultivate other phenomenon perhaps not all in keeping with the religiosity of the Puritan populace of the time of the book's main composition. Perhaps the volume and its writer are so controversial that the denizens of the late 1600s would consider it such blasphemy it could evidence a discovery of witches and add burning embers to a flame of anger and hatred already fostered by the superstition, boredom, jealousy and hysteria that led to the Salem Witch trials.
Howe's main character, Connie Goodwin possesses good Yankee commonsense combined with scholarship and tenacity. In 1991, she pursues her doctorate in colonial history under the advisement of her mentor Manning Chilton. When her mother, Grace, definitely a woman whose New Age sensibilities of her 60s heyday drive her more grounded daughter to eye-rolling bouts of frustration, calls from Arizona with a request to look into a property tax snafu on a family dwelling in Marblehead, Connie reluctantly but diligently moves from Cambridge to sort out the paperwork and clean out the cottage. What she finds there intrigues her from a multitude of levels. For not only is the house pre-Revolutionary and hidden from plain view by overgrown shrubs and other wildly nurtured vegetation, it is a treasure trove of paraphernalia utilized by the generations of women who lived there. As Connie accidentally upsets a Bible on a dusty shelf and discovers the name "Deliverance Dane" on a paper folded and tucked into the shaft of a key within the book's pages, a scholarly quest to find the "Physick" ensues that consumes Connie from a historical standpoint but then eventually acts as a portal to a portion of her identity of which she is unaware but sorely needs to uncover.
The actual hunt for the Physick involves wading through old records and library stacks that should appeal to the avid Sherlockian literati especially when shining moments of enlightenment are gleaned as reward. Connie's education like that of her creator aids her in wielding a mental machete that hacks a path through the darkness of ignorance towards ultimate revelation.
The story falters a bit with the addition of the two-dimensional villain who from the get-go is so insinuatingly obvious as the cause of all things that go wrong for the protagonist that it is almost painful to have to undergo the process that leads to Connie's eventual understanding and ultimate reckoning.
Nonetheless, the true strength in Howe's book is not really the discovery of history, self and confidence--which is, indeed, entertaining in itself--but the insightful comments that the author makes with regard to the nature of women.
In one very poignant portion of the story--the novel does include some "interlude" chapters where the cast from history is focused upon--Deliverance Dane from the vantage point of an imprisoned woman accused of witchcraft by a hysterical group of young girls (made famous in Miller's "The Crucible") and women who acted as inspectors looking for so-called "witch marks" on the bodies of the soon-to-be condemned, sadly notes that it is always other women that "leap" to accuse each other and that they pose a danger to each other that somehow did not pose to men. For whatever reason, the other women in the community throw Deliverance and the other accused under the bus--why? Is it jealousy? Ego? Spitefulness? Whatever the reason, Howe's perspective is that this seems to be the nature of women--a point of fact that hasn't changed and never will. Men gain admittance into the "good-old-boy" society. There is no such thing for women. Knives in the back are common and forthcoming. Howe's prose within the "Interlude" sections is tinged with a realistic melancholy of not being able to trust any woman regardless of one's friendships, confidences, special talents, recognition or acceptance of self. For anyone traveling the road of individual enlightenment--be it through religion, spiritualism, witchcraft herb lore or sincere intention--beware. Unfortunately, this is a road best traveled alone without women companions. Howe tells us that there is no sisterhood of the traveling pants or sorority of the ya-ya sisters--those are just imaginings or wishes. In the real world, spiteful condemnation is certitude upon which a woman of certain skills can solely rely. Hopefully, her Connie will heed her words, plow forward keeping her extra curriculums to herself and trusting no one.
Bottom line? "The Physick of Deliverance Dane" by Katherine Howe entertains from the vantage point of the historical novel whose scholarship is insured by Howe's own scholarship and that of the conundrum obscured by time and unraveled through clever observation, education and intellect. "Physick" is a novel revolving around witchcraft, the Salem Trials, the finding of self and the world of Harvard doctorate candidates. On a more important level, it comments with regret upon the nature of women and the oftentimes futility of possessing integrity when the crowd is easily swayed through malicious intent and spiteful jealousy to act against you. Recommended as a fast read that gives insight beyond the actual paranormal plotline. Diana Faillace Von Behren "reneofc"
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Diana Faillace Von Behren (reneofc)
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments. Usually I review a book or film with the … more