It seems that in recent years there’s been a fascination with fiction about uncovering secrets of the past. These books range from the sublime (A.S. Byatt’s Possession) to the ridiculous (Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code) with most books falling somewhere in between. I didn’t have particularly high hopes for The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, one of the most recent examples of “historian fiction,” but I was intrigued by the subject matter: the Salem witch trials. I didn’t expect it to be another Possession, but it looked like it could be a diverting read.
The main character in the book, Connie Goodwin, is beginning work on her PhD in American History at Harvard when her free-spirited mother asks her to prepare her grandmother’s home near Salem, Massachusetts, for sale. Connie moves into the abandoned house for the summer and soon discovers a key and a slip of paper containing the words Deliverance Dane. And so the investigation begins. Connie learns that Deliverance Dane was one of the women tried for witchcraft in 17th-century Salem and that she left behind a book that might shed a whole new light on what some of the women of Salem were really up to.
At first, I did not enjoy this book much at all. The writing is often terribly awkward, particularly in the descriptive passages. It’s the kind of writing that is filled with words that sound nice but that don’t necessarily say much or that don’t actually make sense. Here’s a particularly egregious example, taken from a description of the formerly grand Harvard building where Connie lives with her roommate Liz:
Sometimes Connie thought she could feel the building’s palpable disdain for its sliding fortunes. Dark oak shelves now crowded with Connie’s history books and Liz’s Latin classics had held generation after generation of uncracked Greek textbooks and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Even the brick fireplace evinced its contempt, belching forth smoke and ask on the rare occasions when the women attempted to kindle a fire.
Okay, if the disdain is palpable, she can definitely feel it—that’s what palpable means. And why would history books and Latin classics instead of uncracked Greek texts and Gibbons be evidence of declining fortunes? Is Greek more prestigious than Latin, even if the books are unopened? Sounds nice—but makes no sense. Thankfully, when Howe focuses on story and character, the writing gets better. And as the book goes on, story and character become more important, and fanciful descriptions rarely intrude.
So how are the story and characters? The story is pretty good. A little too predictable perhaps. I could often see certain plot twists coming a mile away, but that didn’t detract from the pleasure of watching things unfold. The predictability was really only a problem when Connie didn’t notice something that I thought she should have, if she’s the brilliant student she is said to be. Howe’s take on the witch trials strikes me as rather preposterous, but unlike Dan Brown, Howe doesn’t seem to believe in her alternate history. It’s just an amusing “what-if” exercise, not an effort to shed doubt on the whole history.
The characters generally remain one-dimensional. Connie’s friends are always good and helpful, her mother is always lost in her own world, her adviser is always overbearing, and her steeplejack (!) boyfriend is always there when she needs him and away when she doesn’t. And the various librarians and archivists are almost always unpleasant, flaky, or generally not helpful. (This was truly weird. It was practically a motif.)
On balance, this was a moderately entertaining read. I’m not likely to go around recommending it to people, but I wouldn’t steer people away from it either. It’s no Possession, but I strongly prefer it to The DaVinci Code.