In The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe gives us the story of Connie Goodwin, graduate student working on her doctoral dissertation and acting as the caretaker of her late grandmother’s anachronistic home. While cleaning up the house she stumbles across a mysterious key with a slip of paper bearing the name Deliverance Dane. This discovery sparks her curiosity and turns out to help her with her hunt for source material for her dissertation, as well as reveal her family’s ties to the Salem Witch Trials. The story alternates between Connie’s life and historical chapters with Deliverance Dane and her descendants. As the novel progresses, Connie begins to have flashes of things that happened centuries before she was born, as well as events in the lives of her mother and grandmother that she would have no way of knowing. Along her journey towards finding Deliverance Dane’s book, Connie encounters not just academic and historical mysteries, but love and deception as well.
While the actual Salem Witch Trials don’t make up a huge amount of the novel, Ms. Howe’s take on history gives a rich account of life leading up to the witch trials and the impact on a family’s legacy and the community. Initially, given when the historical parts of the novel take place, I expected to see more of the trials covered, but I now see that would have taken away from the time devoted to building up the events that led to Deliverance Dane’s role in the Salem Witch Trials and the aftermath for her daughter. It would have taken away, rather than add, to the story. What is covered of the trials gives enough detail for the purposes of the story.
If you enjoy rich description and fully rounded characters, I highly recommend this one. The introduction of real magic is pretty low-key and initially limited to potions and spells that heal or help with planting and crops. Those build up to a few more remarkable feats of magic. Overall, I would call this a low-magic setting and it feels like the magic presented is realistic. It makes me feel like I could stumble across a spell book in an old pile of books somewhere and unlock the key that opened the door to magic. It helps that the characters feel like real people going about their lives and then the extraordinary hits them. Ms. Howe’s debut novel makes for a wonderful and relaxing read.