Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Review: "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane"

Add Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Voice, 2009) to the ever-expanding genre of books-in-which-a-lost-book-can-solve-a-mystery (most of which all of us biblio-folks will probably read no matter what anybody has to say about them). This is the only one I know of which tackles the Salem Witch Crisis, as protagonist Connie Goodwin (a Harvard Ph.D. candidate) finds herself drawn into a historical drama with very modern consequences for herself and those around her.

Mostly, I enjoyed this book. It's a good idea, and the way Howe handles flashbacks and historical interludes work. However, there are a few sections that seem rather overwritten, and there were times when I wanted to shake Ms. Goodwin for not getting the obvious clue that was staring her in the face. A supernatural element which rears its head late in the book was a bit much, and seemed not entirely necessary to the plot (to me, believable is almost always preferred). And I was slightly offended by her treatment of librarians, every single one of whom is portrayed as either inept, bored, rude, or a combination of the three - seems a bit harsh, really.

Howe's main theme is the (semi-rhetorical) question of what things might have been like if witchcraft (or something like it) had actually been practiced in Salem. Of course historian Chadwick Hansen made this argument in his 1969 book Witchcraft at Salem, which somehow goes unmentioned when Connie has to answer her advisor's question about the possibility that witchcraft had existed in Salem - when I heard Connie say that no one had made that argument since Cotton Mather, I cringed a bit. Aside from this, though, the way Howe handles the question is good, and she's right to ask the question of why the English tradition of "cunning women" does not seem to have existed in the American colonies.

All in all, a diverting read. It may not be the best of the bunch of this sort of book, but it certainly isn't the worst, either.