I read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in the summer but never posted about it…below are the notes I made about it then with more rants peppered in.
The idea was great but I don’t think Howe ever got around to exploring it fully-what if the accused women of the Salem witch trials were really “cunning women”, that is, what if they really were witches. Of course we know that people then believed in witchcraft and believed that certain women were practicing it. What would be the ramifications of this interpretation of history?
Howe seems to leave much of this unexplored and instead has us follow Connie through her life as a graduate student. Connie discovers that she is a relative of Deliverance Dane, a woman persecuted as a witch in Massachusetts in the late 1600s. She also discovers that Deliverance may have had a physick book in which were kept spells and receipts for healing and all sorts of things. Finding this book is supposed to be Connie’s ticket to a break-through discovery and awesome dissertation. Connie’s research and ability to piece together clues was fluffy and it seemed like she just kept getting lucky in her leads. One would think a Harvard PhD candidate studying American colonial history who has passed her comps should have more solid skills.
The interludes from the 1690s are what I enjoyed the most, meeting Connie’s ancestor Deliverance and experiencing bits of her life. Howe did a wonderful job describing early colonial life and the social context leading up to the with trials. When it was time to return to Connie’s story in modern day (Massachusetts in the 1990s) I would become a bit disgruntled. The story was also predictable and cheesy in parts-a villain dissertation committee head, a sweet boy next door to fall in love with, and a spacey mother into New Age practices. You could tell throughout that things would work out for Connie.
I couldn’t tell if the author wanted to go in the direction of a feminist account of the Salem witch trials (poor and unmarried women were usually singled out), a soft thriller/romance, or a fantasy filled with spells and unexplained happenings. I found myself not believing that Connie could heal or was able to do magic because she was a skeptic of it the entire time and never showed signs of it. I thought this part of the novel was very forced and thrown in at the end. This book was just okay, boring actually, and it took some effort to get through it but it was not a difficult read. Maybe I was just really hoping the great idea would get a whole lot more play.