Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cunning women beware!

With all the interest lately in witches, wizards and spells, it only stands to reason that America's best-known witches would get a new treatment. Although the majority of the events in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane take place in modern times, there are "interludes" spaced throughout the book that relate events that took place during the Salem witch trials of 1692.

Connie Goodwin is a doctoral student at Harvard in the present-day story, studying early American folklore. Her flaky new age mother, who lives in New Mexico, contacts Connie and asks her to clear out her grandmother's old house, so that it can be sold. Connie has never visited the house, and is alarmed to discover it is nearly hidden by the neglected garden, and, even better, has no electricity. Still, she moves in over the summer while she mulls over what subject she will choose to research for her dissertation.

In clearing out the house, she discovers an old key, with a slip of paper hidden inside it. On the paper is written "Deliverance Dane." This sends Connie on a quest to find out just who or what Deliverance Dane could be. She soon begins to suspect that Deliverance Dane was a person, and one who was apparently hanged as a witch in the 17th century.

Her research brings her into contact with a young man, Sam (the love interest), who restores old church steeples. As Connie goes on the hunt for Deliverance's "physick book" (spell recipes), Sam falls desperately ill. She becomes convinced that she can heal him if only she can find the book and discover the correct spell.

At the same time, her academic advisor, Manning Chilton, puts pressure on Connie to find the book. First, he tells her that she needs to uncover new source material for her dissertation, and then begins to hint that her academic career might be at risk if she doesn't produce the book.

Woven throughout the modern story is the story of Deliverance Dane, known during her lifetime as a "cunning woman." She was familiar with herbs and medicines, and was one of the people relied upon when sickness struck. On the downside, when her medicines proved ineffective, she was suspected of hastening the patient into the afterlife. Her daughter, Mercy, became a midwife and kept a diary, which gave Connie most of the clues about the existence of the physick book.

I was really most interested in the historical facts of the story. The love story between Connie and Sam was a bit dull, and the evil advisor became just a little too omnipotent toward the end of the story. But the story of Deliverance's arrest, trial and punishment were riveting. The author, Katherine Howe, really manages to bring the terror and mass hysteria of the time to life.

Final verdict for The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane: Three Gherkins, for having a great deal of fascinating detail about the Salem witch trials

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