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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (hardcover, $25.99)

I thought I had found another Alice Hoffman as I began Katherine Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, perhaps a little practical magic overlaying a story of romance. Yes and no. It has definite Hoffman vibes, but with a little Da Vinci Code, Stephen King, and academic discourse thrown in to create a charming and different mix.

Connie Goodwin is a doctoral candidate at Harvard. Her specialty is early American colonialism. Although it is only a minor part of her specialty, she is drawn into a retrospection of witchcraft and the famous Salem witch trials. Coincidentally (or is it?), Grace, her mother with whom she has a strained relationship, asks Connie to clean up and get ready to sell Grace’s mother’s home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a town near the more famous town of Salem. The house has been abandoned for twenty years and appears derelict, and Connie reluctantly agrees to spend her summer cleaning the house, while doing research on her dissertation in Salem.

Almost immediately upon fighting her way past the abundant and tangled vegetation obscuring the house and entering the dusty but solid 200-year-old home, Connie opens a family Bible and a key falls out. The hollow stem of the key contains a piece of paper with the faint words, "Deliverance Dane," written on it. And so the adventure begins. In her quest for an important thesis topic, Connie has hopes that Deliverance Dane, whoever or whatever it is, will fill the need. In an alternating story set in the 1700s, the reader sees the answers Connie seeks unfolding slowly throughout the book.

What distinguishes this book from a light supernatural romance – a genre that abounds these days – is the historic detail and academic sheen Katherine Howe brings to the story. There is the requisite romance – after all, what is Samantha without her Darren – but even it has its teaching moments, since Connie’s love interest is a restorer of colonial buildings and art. Howe is masterful at bringing into realistic and ordinary surroundings the story of “cunning women,” whose natural talents were mistaken for magic, yet raising the possibility of “vernacular magic,” an extraordinary explanation for those talents. Her depiction of the Salem witch trials is moving and explores human frailties. Even the Da Vinci Code/Stephen King moments are forgiveable, despite the tip towards the sensational away from the quotidian, because of the very human level Howe maintains in her character of Connie Goodwin.

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