Set in 1991 and framed around a young graduate student’s historical research, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane delves deeply into the past, tumbling through time to the town of Salem around the time of the
1690's witch trials. Here Deliverance Dane, a “cunning woman,” attends to the needs of the male townsfolk, particularly that of Peter Petford and his gravely ill daughter, Martha.
This is a frightening era for women like Deliverance. Superstition and fear reign, the seeds of distrust fueling mass madness along with accusations of witchcraft. Deliverance and other women of her ilk are quick to be labeled as common rogues and wicked sorcerers, the authorities evermore convinced that part of Deliverance’s pledge is to do the “devil’s work.”
Centuries later, Connie Goodwin, an historian of American colonial life, finds herself caught up in this era. When Connie’s mother calls asking for an important favor
- that Annie, her mother’s, estate be sold, Connie finds herself traveling to the town of Marblehead, relieved to get a break from the intellectual rigor of her Harvard qualifying oral exams and
of silver-haired Manning Chilton, whose recent research into alchemical technique is about to set the world of academia ablaze.
The house is like something out of an ancient fairy tale, with riots of wild herbs and plants overrunning one another in an incoherent mass, and shelves upon shelves of glass bottles and jars ranging over the walls, all containing unidentifiable powders, leaves, and syrups. Truly puzzling, however, is Connie’s discovery of a pulpy old Bible, vibrating with a hot, crawling, pricking sensation; a three-inch long key with an ornate handle; and a miniature parchment, on
which watery ink, barely legible in the flickering light, spells out the words “Deliverance Dane.”
Amid card catalogues and ledgers, marriage indexes and probate records, church records and an age-old receipt book, Connie and her new beau, Sam,
are caught up in this era where individuals - mostly women - are held completely powerless in the face of God’s omnipotence, and where the magical puzzle of Deliverance, her daughter Mercy, and her granddaughter Prudence are brought vividly to life.
Howe’s portrait of a woman and her descendants trapped in history is intricately researched and will delight those of us who are archivists and librarians. While Sam becomes the victim of a terrible accident, perhaps caused by the evil shenanigans of the Machiavellian Manning Chilton, Connie’s efforts to save Sam take center stage, her journey paralleling that of Deliverance, her stoicism at the helplessness of her situation and
her daughter Mercy’s anguish at losing a mother she so dearly loves.
In the end, this novel offers up a quite different perspective on witchcraft, the addition of real magical powers for the characters giving the story a contemporary almost “hip” feel. The rarefied world of history and book academia is well complemented by Howe’s fascinating, quite cinematic portrayal of the idioms, landscapes, and the customs of Salem at the end of the 17th century.