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“Autumn is the time of year when Mother Nature says, ‘Look how easy, how healthy, and how beautiful letting go can be.’”
– Toni Sorenson  
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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 9 September 2018  

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  “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane”
  By Robin Widmar

   As the calendar page flips to October, thoughts start turning toward Halloween and all that accompanies it; including ghosts, pumpkins and witches. But the “witches” who appear in Katherine Howe’s “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” are not the stereotypical green-skinned hags on flying brooms that frequent the costume aisles of local stores. They are mortal human beings swept up into the hysteria that spawned the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
   The year is 1991. Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin is planning to start research for her doctoral thesis. Her intimidating advisor, Professor Manning Chilton, implores her to seek a “marvelous, newly uncovered primary source.” But Connie’s free-spirited mother, Grace, has other ideas. Taxes are overdue on the long-vacant family home in nearby Marblehead, Massachusetts; and, since Grace lives across the country in New Mexico, she tasks Connie with cleaning out the old house and preparing it for sale.
   Not exactly the pressure-free summer Connie had in mind.
   Connie and her dog, Arlo, move into the dilapidated 18th century house that hasn’t been occupied since her grandmother passed away. Unusual vegetation of both the intentional and unwanted varieties have overtaken the home’s yard and gardens; while dust, cobwebs and odd artifacts dominate the interior. The house is not wired for electricity, so Connie must do her nighttime reading by the light of an oil lamp. At least she has running water and indoor plumbing.
   The chore of cleaning up a long-vacant house is daunting, but for a student of American Colonial history like Connie, it also has rewards. Tucked away in an antique Bible, she discovers an old-fashioned key with a hollow shaft. Inside the key is a tiny slip of parchment bearing the words Deliverance Dane. Connie quickly deduces that the words are actually a name. But who is this person and why is her name in a key hidden in Granna’s house? The answer will require a lot of digging through physical records, since little historical information was digitally archived in 1991.
   With the help of Sam Hartley, a charming and handsome steeplejack who does restoration work on old buildings throughout New England, Connie makes her first discovery: Deliverance Dane was an undocumented victim of the Salem witch trials. Further research reveals the possible existence of Deliverance’s “physick book,” filled with recipes for tonics, balms and other cures for maladies in both livestock and humans. Deliverance Dane was a healer, and she would have used the book’s contents in her work.
   Connie realizes that the physick book could be the new and original source she needs. But when she shares her discovery with Professor Chilton, he begins to badger her about finding the tome quickly. It becomes clear that he wants the book for his own purposes; and, although Connie doesn’t know what his end goal is, she isn’t at all sure she wants him to have it.
   Throughout the summer, Connie has some unsettling encounters that would fall into the realm of “paranormal,” if she believed in such things. As a historian, she understands that the 1692 witch trials stemmed from a combination of strict Puritan beliefs and weird side effects of consuming moldy grain, not from so-called magic or witchcraft. But when she has repeated visions of her grandparents in and around the old house and brings a long-dead houseplant back to life, her pragmatism starts to crumble. In the words of a Salem shopkeeper she meets: “Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” Eventually, Connie develops another theory about the witch trials: What if witchcraft actually existed, and perhaps even coexisted with 17th century Christian beliefs?
   That question becomes a driving force for the story as Connie learns more about the peculiar things she finds in Granna’s house: bottles of dried herbs, a straw doll, a note card handwritten with Latin words. Each discovery leads her to a wholly unexpected connection between Deliverance Dane and her own family. When her new friend, Sam, falls gravely ill and doctors claim they can do nothing to help him, Connie resorts to a 17th century remedy in an attempt to stop Sam’s uncontrollable seizures.
   By the end of the story, Connie learns the purposes behind many of the interesting things she’s found in the old house, including the mysterious key in the Bible. Even Arlo the dog has a kind of connection to the past. The only unresolved puzzle is whether discovering Deliverance Dane and her “physick” book was a simple stroke of luck or the result of events orchestrated by ancestral forces beyond her consciousness. Readers can probably figure out that answer for themselves.
   “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” is a beautifully written and charming novel that delivers a heaping spoonful of history as a palatable side effect. Howe intertwines Connie’s tale with that of Deliverance Dane, switching deftly between the years surrounding the witch trials and 20th century Massachusetts. The author’s background in American and New England history, as well as the two Salem witch trial victims in her own family tree (one survived, one did not), lend authenticity to each time period the story explores.
   However, those who are looking for a bloody thriller novel to read this Halloween will have to look elsewhere. There is horror in this story, but it is the horror of atrocities committed against innocent people during the darkest period in Salem’s history. A good book should be an escape from the frustrations of daily life, and “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” fills that role nicely without resorting to the graphic violence so prevalent in modern entertainment.
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