Despite a bewitching subject matter and modern approach, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe is riddled with clichés and lacks consistency. This debut novel tells the tale of a graduate student splitting her summer between conducting research for her dissertation and cleaning up the run-down house of her late grandmother. The work on the house slows as Connie’s research sets her on the trail of a text that could change the world’s understanding of a dark chapter in American Colonial history – the Salem Witch Trials. With her advisor pressuring her to find the book, Connie’s discoveries turn into discoveries about herself, her family’s history, and her own abilities.
Clichés abound throughout the novel, though none so prominently as tragic and sudden harm befalling the menfolk of the women possessing “the gift.” Each time this trend was hinted at, my mind flashed to the movie Practical Magic (in my opinion it worked better for the film). But clichés can be overlooked when other aspects add balance to the narrative. Howe failed to achieve that balance as glaring inconsistencies and illogicalities frustrated this reader and were compounded by an admitted altering of history.
The main narrative following Connie’s search for Deliverance Dane’s mysterious book is broken up with glimpses into Deliverance’s life and those of her descendants. In the first part of the novel, these dips into the past follow the trail of the book in pace with Connie’s search. In the novel’s second half, rather than continue with this interesting approach, Howe returned to Deliverance and placed her in the heart of the witch trials, put her on trial, and hanged her with one of the earliest and most famous groups of the accused (in reality, she was not from Salem, she was one of the later accused, but she was never tried, let alone hanged). In an afterword, Howe explains the exact changes that she made to history, and for that I give her credit. These later narrative jumps occur with greater frequency, becoming a distraction from Connie’s storyline and making it unclear where the focus of the novel lies. I think she would have done better to keep the trials out of the main narrative and examine their legacy rather than using them because they are a source of inherent tension and drama.
This change to history only makes other aspects of the plot shakier, especially those circumstances designed to set up the plot. Connie finds the name Deliverance Dane while examining the contents of her grandmother’s house but the name means nothing to her and she isn’t initially convinced that it is a name at all. But with the changes to Deliverance’s personal history made by Howe, there is no reason that a Harvard graduate student of Colonial New England who extensively studied for PhD candidacy exams (one of the first things the reader learns about Connie) shouldn’t recognize the name someone hanged during the hysteria of 1692. The argument that one of the many accused went undocumented is vaguely plausible, but someone as close to the events as Howe specifically places Dane goes beyond the believable. It is one of many misguided illogicalities that loosely hold this novel together.
What bothered me most about this book was not the weakly explained alterations to history nor the hokey and clichéd attempts to inject real magic into the Salem Trials’ legacy (both of which struck me as a little insensitive and Howe’s explanation that her own ancestors were among those accused does not make those differences any easier to swallow). What I found to be the greatest distraction was her haphazard Boston accent. Having lived an hour from the city my whole life, reading Howe’s presentation of it had me rolling my eyes. Capturing linguistic expression is never a simple formula. A Boston accent is far more complex and subtle than replacing all “R”s with “ah.” Vowels are dropped in some places leaving consonants to run together and those “R”s that are dropped get glued on to other words so they don’t go unused. It might not be noticeable to those unfamiliar with the patterns, but calls attention to it in ways that don’t make sense. Finding Deliverance’s daughter Mercy under the name Marcy in historic records makes enough sense for a less literate society. There is no reason to try to blame it on an accent that would have evolved in three hundred years anyway. Bostonians would not pronounce Mercy as “Mahcy” as Howe does consistently. The “er” combination would be lower and become something closer to “Muhcy.” The accent is also applied to characters inconsistently and the lack of colloquialisms further remove the dialogue from authenticity.
For those whose interest was piqued by the research that went into tracking Deliverance’s physic book, The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr illustrates the process in a clearer and more efficient way (perhaps because it is a true tale) while those interested in the Salem Witch trials and beyond would probably do better to try Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Godbeer (a short work of non-fiction that addresses the Salem hysteria in contrast with a simultaneous witch trial in Connecticut). The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is one Barnes & Noble Recommends book that I would recommend leaving on the shelf.