Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

I like quirky points of history.  There’s something to be said for studying anomalies – they’re so much more interesting than the ho-humness that is quotidian life.  What do I mean by that?  Well, what’s more interesting to learn about?  Mayan human-sacrifice, or the daily life of the European peasant before the Enlightenment; the Salem witch trials, or domestic cottage industries engaged in by women during England’s Golden Age; the Nazi fascination with the occult, or working conditions in Banking in the inter-war years?  Of course you’re going to say the Mayans, witches, and Nazis; who wouldn’t?  There’s something entrancing about the quirky parts of our human experience that draw people to them like moths to a flame.  And that’s why I chose my last read, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe.

Howe’s work tells the story of Connie Goodwin, a PhD candidate in American colonial history at Harvard.  We meet Connie just as she’s completing her oral-comps, after which her advisor takes her aside to tell her she needs to plum new archival sources for her dissertation if she wants to continue working with him.  A daunting task for any grad students.  Shortly there-after, Connie’s mother calls and asks her to move up the coast in order to clean up and sell her dead grandmother’s home.  While poking through some books, Connie comes across a name, Deliverance Dane, in a family Bible, and begins hunting down the sources to help tell Deliverance’s story.  As it turns out, Deliverance was a wise woman, accused (and executed) during the Salem Witch Trials – and she was the only one to not receive a pardon several years later.  Now Connie is trying to hunt down the recipe/spell book that Deliverance used in her healing work in hopes it will be the unique source her advisor seems adamant she find.  While Connie's is the main story in this work, it is occasionally interrupted with the story of Deliverance and her descendents, providing an interesting historical foil to Connie's own tale.

Howe’s work has one very large pro and one very large con working for it.  The con first: once again, we see an author trying to weave the supernatural into their tale, when rational explanations could (and would) suffice to advance the plot.  To be fair, Howe doesn’t introduce the supernatural at the eleventh-hour in an attempt to tie up loose ends, but it is introduced rather late in the book, and quickly takes prominence of place in the plot.  I’m not thrilled with the device, but it was explained in the author’s note at the end of the book.  Howe is a direct descendent of two women accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials (Elizabeth Proctor being the one ancestor everyone will recognize).  Howe is an academic whose works in the colonial American period and found that all accounts of the Trials worked on the assumption that witchcraft and magic aren’t real – she set out to write her story without discounting the possibility of the supernatural.  So, I’ll give it to her, and will look back without hostility on its inclusion.

The pro: Howe is herself a career academic.  Her passages about Connie’s research techniques, interactions with Faculty, and thought processes are all incredibly genuine.  More than that, she is able to infuse her work of fiction with a great deal of information about the lives of colonial women, the interpretations of place and role of liminal members of colonial society, and the art and position of the wise-woman in western history.  Much of the information wasn’t new to me, but nothing stood out as being wrong either – Howe is clearly knowledgeable and passionate about her subject (as most historians are), and that comes across in her work.  I enjoyed my time in academia, and Howe’s work reminded me of it, so she must have done something right.

All in all, this was a good work.  Was it stellar and am I going to hunt down all of Howe’s subsequent works?  No.  It was a one-off read for me, and I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it (yeay Chapters sales!).  That being said, if you’re looking for a book with a lot of good historical facts interspersed with an interesting story, than this is a read for you.

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