The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (2009) is Katherine Howe's first novel. Given the plot, comparisons between the author's life and her fictional heroine are inevitable, so they might as well be addressed sooner rather than later.
Howe is herself in a PhD program for American and New England History. Based on various family member's genealogy research, Howe's ancestors are also Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor. Anyone familiar with Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible will likely recognize the Proctor name. If not, let it be said that both Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 (the event at the core of The Crucible).
In her postscript Howe notes that, in writing The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, she decided to take the Salem villagers at their word and create a novel that answers a simple, not often asked, question: what if witches and witchcraft were really present in Salem? That is also, perhaps, the most important thing to remember while reading this book in order to keep the blend of realism and magic in perspective.
One of the most compelling scenes from The Crucible came when Giles Corey was pressed to death under a great pile of stones. The villagers asked Corey to admit that he was guilty of witchcraft. But each time Corey refused, instead only saying, "More weight." It's an intense moment. It is also the first thing readers encounter in Howe's novel which begins with an epigraph from an actual letter fragment describing the circumstances of Giles Corey's death. Perhaps this is a naive statement, but it seems to follow that if you read and enjoyed The Crucible, Howe's novel will prove equally enjoyable.
The actual story follows several tenacious women beginning in 1681 straight through to 1991--the present time period of the book. The protagonist, Connie Goodwin, is a PhD student much like Howe herself. That is possibly why the academic aspects of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane ring so true. This novel spends a fair bit of time dealing with academia and also academic research, providing and informed and detailed window into both. This may prove uninteresting to some. To actual academics/research professionals it might prove profoundly interesting.
Studying Colonial American History at Harvard, Connie Goodwin has just passed through her orals unscathed, able now to advance to candidacy for her PhD and begin work on her dissertation. Connie's plans to begin work on her dissertation, specifically on finding a new and exciting primary source for it, are derailed when her hippie mother calls from New Mexico and asks Connie to uproot her life to clean out her grandmother's long vacant house near Salem.
Upon arriving in Salem Connie finds a seventeenth century house requiring its own research. At the same time, with the help of a local preservationist, Connie realizes that magic is a pervasive aspect of life in Salem. Soon a mysterious key leads Connie to the name Deliverance Dane and mention of an elusive "physick book" that could change everything previously known about witchcraft in colonial America. As her personal and professional lives merge in pursuit of the book, it becomes clear that more is at stake--for Connie and those closest to her--than a primary source for her dissertation.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane has a lot of appeal for a variety of readers. It is also a gripping story with a very interesting plot. (At times Connie is a bit too stiff and analytical, but as the book moves forward she does evolve.) The story follows not only Connie's story but also Deliverance Dane and her descendants in interludes that mirror Connie's research about the book and shed some light on the women who passed it down from generation to generation.
The plot itself has action, suspense, pathos, some humor, and it must be said a fair dose of the fantastical--but somehow it all works. Howe has created a fascinating commentary on one of America's most compelling and most infamous periods in history with this debut novel.