It seems an odd and disturbing question, particularly coming from a renowned Harvard scholar: “Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?”
No, graduate student Connie Goodwin has never entertained the possibility that the women on trial in Salem, Mass., in 1692 were really witches. But this is her academic adviser, the venerable Prof. Manning Chilton, asking the question, so answer she must. Jump through the hoop, she tells herself. And she does – little knowing how far that leap will take her.
So begins The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a debut novel in which author Katherine Howe blends the history of the long-ago witch trials with the tale of a 1991 Harvard student to create a toothsome smoothie of a summer read.
Connie is an earnest, devoted scholar of American Colonial history working on her PhD at Harvard University. She doesn’t have much of a social life but she sure knows her way around a card catalog and works hard to ensure that her tidy, organized life as an academic will remain distant from that of the hippie-dippie lifestyle of her New Age-y mother, Grace.
Grace, however, isn’t as willing to let go. Even as Connie is busy acing her oral exams and getting ready to move on to her dissertation, Grace has a favor to ask: Would Connie mind spending the summer in the old seaside town of Marblehead, Mass., helping to domesticate the rustic (really rustic – there’s no electricity and Connie has to hack her way through vines to find the front door) former home of her grandmother?
Connie grudgingly accedes, little guessing what adventures will unfold for her once she leaves Cambridge. For one, she comes to discover that she is the descendent of Deliverance Dane, one of the women accused of witchcraft in 1692. For another, she meets a good-natured steeplejack (yes, really, a steeplejack – restoration is a big business in these old New England towns) named Sam who – much to her surprise – becomes her boyfriend.
But most astonishing of all, she begins to learn of the unusual heritage passed down through the women in her family and to wonder if the chilly, patrician Manning Chilton could have been onto something when he asked her if there might not really be such a thing as witchcraft.
Connie is a heroine with both feet on the ground, a realist firmly convinced that “particle physics has the lock on the true nature of reality.” But she is somewhat unhinged when Chilton becomes unnaturally obsessed with the notion that she will be able to find the “physick book” (essentially, a recipe book of spells) that Deliverance Dane may have passed down to her descendents.
As the plot unfolds, it cuts skillfully back and forth between Connie’s tale in the present (relative present, that is – 1991 already seems almost quaint, what with characters taking calls on land lines and all that research being conducted off-line) and the stories of Deliverance and her daughter Mercy in the Colonial Era.
Howe manages to gracefully – and occasionally humorously – juxtapose Connie’s life with those of her ancestors. A rusty Volvo may replace a horse-drawn cart, but Howe clearly knows her way around American history (not only is she a Ph.D. candidate in American and New England Studies herself but she is also the descendent of two women accused in the Salem witch trials) and she succeeds in imparting verisimilitude to the story lines in both eras.
In fact, perhaps the only aspect of the book that seems anachronistic is the character of Chilton. Are there really still department chairs at Harvard who wear silk bow ties, suck on pipes, and intone (in heavy Boston Brahmin-ese), “Connie, my girl, what a pleasant surprise. Researching, are we?” Maybe – but to me this Back Bay blue blood felt at least as artificial as the “lucky crystals” now sold in Salem.
Otherwise, however, “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” does indeed perform a work of magic. Through a type of literary alchemy the current interest in novels tied to the Salem witch trial (“The Heretic’s Daughter” by Kathleen Kent and “The Lace Reader” by Brunonia Barry are just two examples), commingles with the plot of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” (in which a graduate student stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to upend recorded history) and produces a new compound – in this case, one powerful enough to deliver a charming summer read.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.