Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (author), Katherine Kellgren (reader)


Voice, ISBN 9781401395155, April 2010

In the early summer of 1991, Connie Goodwin has just moved into a critical phase of her Ph.D studies at Harvard, approved for candidacy and needing to choose her dissertation topic, when her mother asks her to move into her grandmother's old house in Salem, and get it fixed up and ready for sale. This is even more challenging than might be anticipated, because the house has been empty and neglected since her grandmother Sophie died in the 1970s, and it hadn't been fully modernized even then. Connie's feeling a bit used, especially when she finds the house almost completely hidden behind its overgrown garden--but unexpectedly, she finds herself surprisingly comfortable in the old house.

And among the old books and papers her grandmother left behind, she finds a lead for a possible topic for her dissertation: a previously unrecorded Salem witch, Deliverance Dane, and a hint that she owned a Physick Book, a book of spells and potions.
In her search for the book, Connie is puzzled by the increasingly strange behavior of her adviser, Manning Chilton, and frustrated by her mother's seemingly oblivious assurances that she "doesn't need" the book. She has also met a young man, Sam, who has frustrated his parents by becoming a professional restorer of old and historic buildings. Only part of their concern is that they'd like him to be a more conventional sort of professional such as a doctor or lawyer; it's also the safety issue of the amount of time he spends high up on ladders and scaffolding.

As Connie gets more and more caught up in her search through the probate records of Deliverance's descendants for the current location of the book, and she and Sam get more and more caught up in each other, Chilton's seeming obsession with the book grows more disturbing and threatening.

Howe has nicely captured the sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of a Harvard graduate program, as well as the atmosphere of Salem and Marblehead, with their strong sense of their history alongside the bustle of the modern world. There are some odd notes; Connie, who grew up in Concord, MA, sometimes seems to be regarding New Englanders from the outside, as members of an alien culture rather than the culture  she grew up in. Despite that, this is a thoroughly engaging, compelling story, and you'll care right to the very last page what happens to Connie, Sam, and their family and friends.

Recommended.

I borrowed this book from a friend.