“Shelves upon shelves of glass bottles and jars ranging over the walls, all of them containing unidentifiable powders, leaves, and syrups” greet Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin as she enters her grandmother’s long-forgotten home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. She is left with the task of preparing the old and vacant house for sale by her flighty, New Age mother who lives in Santa Fe. However, Connie would much rather spend her summer researching her colonial history dissertation topic than doing her mother (whom she lovingly refers to as Grace) a favor.
But Connie soon discovers that Granna’s old house, nearly hidden “under the tightly wound bramble branches and dense thorn bushes,” and her dissertation will become even more intertwined than she would perhaps like, bringing a modernism to Katherine Howe’s mystical novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, that makes it enjoyable for both the intellectual and the Halloween-crazed.
When a key from an old Bible found in the house sets Connie off on a search to discover an entirely original primary source—a book of shadows dating back to the Salem Witch Trials—odd coincidences have Connie believing that the book is more important than she originally thought.
Simultaneously woven into Connie’s story is the tale of Deliverance Dane, a woman wrongly accused of murder during the seventeenth-century hysteria that plagued Salem, Massachusetts. As the girls of Salem fall to fits, “contorted with biliousness, mouths opening and shutting like angry fish snapping at shreds of flesh in the water,” Deliverance’s plight grows grim.
Howe’s writing of Deliverance’s story feels authentic: the characters of colonial Salem speak sincerely and plainly. Experiencing an altogether new view of the Salem panic, the reader is caught in the whirlwind of emotion and an ambiguity of moralities that overwhelmed the village during 1692.
The enigmatic book is somehow related to Deliverance, and Connie struggles to piece together the gaps of the woman’s life as everything in her own life seemingly falls apart. Returning headaches, strange marks burned into the house’s door, her Harvard professor’s sudden fanatic obsession with her research, and her boyfriend’s abrupt seizures that bear a strikingly similarity to those of the Salem girls have Connie feeling the presence of something larger, something unknown, something clearly “diabolical.”
Readers will find themselves yearning to peer through the yellowing pages of Deliverance’s book, intensely curious about “monkshood, henbane, foxglove, moonwort,” and all of the other “obscure flowers” that spells require. Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is skillfully written with a high attention to detail, and will “magick” any skeptic into a true believer.