The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Reviewed by Berni Phillips Bratman
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:1 (#330) in January 2010.]
Katherine Howe, the author of this book, is descended from two accused Salem witches and is working on her Ph.D. It was only natural that she conceived a novel which incorporates these two aspects of herself.
Connie Goodwin is a Ph.D. candidate at prestigious Harvard University in 1991. She is specializing in the early colonial period and needs to come up with a topic for her dissertation after completing her oral exams. Thus she is annoyed when her flaky mother, Grace, asks her to spend time cleaning up the old family home, preparing it for sale. The house is in the little town, Marblehead, Massachusetts, and hasn’t been occupied since her grandmother died, twenty years earlier.
In the midst of her cleaning, she takes out an ancient family Bible. Thumbing through it, she drops it as her hand begins to feel hot and strange. Out of the Bible has dropped an antique key. Hollow, it contains a small slip of paper which she carefully extracts. On the paper is written two words: Deliverance Dane.
Consulting with her doctoral advisor, Connie decides that it must be a name. The Puritans were fond of names based on virtues. Digging through town records, she comes to the conclusion that not only was Deliverance Dane the name of a woman, she was an undocumented “Salem witch.” In addition, Deliverance was some sort of “cunning woman,” a midwife/wise woman who healed her neighbors as best she could, guided in her craft by a book. If Connie was successful in her research, finding a previously unknown victim of the hysteria of the Salem witch trials and a new primary source, she would have a dissertation worthy of the best scholars of early America.
Woven through Connie’s stories are excerpts from Deliverance Dane’s life and that of her daughter, Mercy. We first meet Deliverance in the prologue in 1681 where she has been called to the bedside of a dying five-year-old girl. Deliverance is unable to save her, and this is the origin of all her troubles. She tells the grieving father, a widower, that the girl was bewitched. Unable to accept this, the father blames Deliverance, which ultimately lands her a spot in the Salem witch trials.
This book was published as mainstream fiction, yet I believe it qualifies as mythopoeic fantasy and could be considered for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. You see, unlike the others, Deliverance Dane really is a witch, and she attributes the source of her power to God. The mythos is that which many of us believe in, Christianity, and Deliverance is a true believer who prays regularly.
When I first started reading this book, I was puzzled by why Howe chose to set the modern day story in 1991 rather than the current year. At first hand, it seems a cheap writing trick since most of Deliverance’s story takes place in 1691, so you have a convenient three hundred year block to alternate between. Pondering this further, I decided that she had to set it in a short time in the past for an important reason. In some ways, the world has changed since 1991 in as striking a way for researchers as if it were 1691. The year 1991 was before the big internet explosion with e-mail and online search engines and all the electronic ephemera that have changed how many of us look for information. In the book, the house Connie is supposed to be cleaning up has no electricity. The Connie of 2009 would have a much harder time of it, living without her computer. I suspect this is why Howe chose the year she did, and it’s indicative of her subtlety.
This is also a book about the connections between mothers and daughters. Sensible Connie is so different from her new-age mother. She has frequent phone conversations with her mother in the book, and we see her gaining knowledge of her mother and finally beginning to understand why she is the way she is. This is mirrored in the relationship between Deliverance and Mercy, the other mother and daughter in the book. (Actually, each story also has a third generation: we have glimpses of Grace’s mother, Sophia, and Mercy’s daughter, Prudence. Each generation is befuddled by the one before and after it.)
Howe gives us a glimpse of how our Puritan ancestors viewed the world. “Modernity took ‘bewitchment’ to mean something caused by magical intervention. But early modern people lived in a world that largely predated science, operating without sophisticated understanding of the difference between correlation and causation. Connie had a suspicion that ‘bewitchment’ might imply not magical causes per se, but only nonorganic ones. Poisoning, say, rather than common illness. Something attributable to an outside source, rather than to the mysterious workings of Providence.” [p. 341] In other words, it might be kinder to say an afflicted person has been bewitched if the alternative is saying that someone’s own carelessness caused the illness of a loved one.
I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in the time of the Salem witch trials or reading of the rigors of the scholastic life, pursuing the elusive Ph.D. Howe tells a good story with characters I cared about and a well-paced plot which kept me wanting to keep reading.