Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

by Katherine Howe
Hyperion. 371 pp. $25.99

A few weeks ago, I found myself with a few hours to kill in the Detroit Airport. As I wandered into the newsstand neighboring my gate, I came across this book. The next few hours seemed to fly by as I progressed through this story.

The novel centers around a graduate student at Harvard, Connie Goodwin, in 1991. The year is important to note. I found myself wondering if this story would be remotely the same with the availability of instantaneous research that graduate students employ today (my own recent experiences included). Some of the best, and most puzzling, scenes of this novel occur as Connie thoughtfully considers all of the research options in her pursuit of a dissertation topic. Hours in the archives, digging through book racks and actually visiting places of public record set the tone for this story.

As Connie struggles to find her topic and impress her advisor, her "free-spirited" mother (who ran a sort of commune for a good part of Connie's childhood) calls from her new home out west. Apparently, years before when Connie's grandmother died she left her home outside of Salem to her daughter - who had neglected to pay property taxes on it since. Her mother wants to sell the property, and Connie agrees to prepare it for sale.

Once she arrives at the house her true adventures begin. As Connie's story evolves, so does that of Deliverance Dane and her descendants. The heaviness of home repair and research are lightened with a semi-predictable romance with a local man who has also done graduate study (at Brown), but now restores steeples. As she explores the story of Deliverance Dane, she learns more about herself and her family than she ever thought possible.

Katherine Howe, who is herself a graduate student in Early American History, succeeds in writing an interesting and informative story which was very probably motivated from her own desire to find such an extraordinary original source. She is a descendant of two women who were victims of the Salem witch trials - one who survived them, and one who did not.

This book is at once suspenseful, historically accurate (and informative), well written, and entertaining. Though at times it borders on predictability, it does not disappoint for anyone that enjoys historical fiction with some imagination.

Read it or Leave it: Read it


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