Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Katherine Howe's "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" turns me twitchy, witchy, b……y

            Connie  -- Constance  --- Goodwin is constantly in emotional flux. 
 Anxious, angry, annoyed – she flares into feelings and then swoons into sweetness. She’s coy; she cloys.
At times, some might even call her witchy or its more modern rhyming equivalent. Witchiness – albeit the good kind –runs in her family, so with a little romance from a steeplejack/preservationist Sam Hartley, Connie, the heroine of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, transforms from petulant shrew to enamored schoolgirl.  Under the influence of a parasitic professor/adviser, she transforms once again to empowered spell-caster.  With the emotional maturity of a high school sophomore, she’s hardly what one might expect from a Harvard PhD candidate.
In Katherine Howe’s first novel, the writing is as uneven as the maturity of her main character. Part historical novel, part supernatural tale, Howe weaves two stories and several generations. At its best, which is just above mediocre, it describes historical events of the Salem witch trials and their aftermath. At its worst, it features Connie in 1991 seeking a lost book of family spells,” which could conveniently also be the “remarkable unusual primary source,” her dissertation adviser wants her to find.
Connie becomes aware of Deliverance Dane, and subsequently the book, when she moves into her long abandoned ancestral home at the request of Grace, Connie’s mother, who says she wants Connie to ready the house for market.  Grace, who Connie refers as “a victim of the 1960s” –  is pure Hippie cliché so naturally she's away reading auras and doing other New Age work in Santa Fe.  Connie’s move to the house first seems a diversion; she is supposed to be working on her dissertation. But as she digs deeper . . .
A PhD candidate at its writing, Howe, like Connie, is a descendant of those accused of witchcraft in the Salem trials. She can trace her lineage back to both Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe, one accused, the other condemned for witchcraft.  This is interesting. So one understands her deep interest in the witch trials.
One also presumes she has first-hand knowledge of the trials of history orals as well as the possible perils of working under an adviser. Why then do we get such a stereotype? Connie’s adviser, Boston Brahmin Manning Chilton, (do I hear echoes of Hawthorne’s leech Chillingsworth here?), is a tweedy, condescending villain we suspect from the start. (This is not the only Hawthorne echo from the Hartley-Goodwin- Chilton triangle).
It isn’t just Chilton’s interaction with her adviser that bristles. Ice cream servers ignore her. Archivists glower. Clerks are curt. Research librarians find her irritating. (Only a private librarian indulges her.) If I were Connie, I would begin to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with me.
Ah, but there is. 
She shudders when picking up the family Bible. Blue meteors streak across the night sky. Mysterious circles appear burned onto the cottage door. Withered plants come alive under her spells.  Blue electric light emanates from her fingers.
Here’s a sample when Connie discovers her magical powers over a spider plant:
 …. The blue orb of light grew more soild, its electrical veins snapping in jagged lines from her fingertips and palms to the center of the ceramic planter. In that instant, the dried spider plant leaves \flushed with water and health, the fresh, waxy green of life crawling down each black leaf…… “
Connie’s reaction? 
“She staggered backward, groping for the support of the dinning table, her breath coming in shallow gasps. Hot tears spring into the rims of her eyes, and she realized that with each breath she was also letting out a high, panicked whimper. Her hand found the back of one of the shield-back chairs, pulling it toward her just in time to catch her falling weight. Horrified, Connie wrapped her arms around her middle and bent over, resting her forehead on her knees, her breath breaking into hiccupping sobs.”
 Shock. Horror. Melodrama.
I have read other blogger’s complaints of the implausibility of Connie’s story – those moments when one stops dead in in one’s reading and says Whaat?  My own knee jerked repeatedly, but was twitchiest when Connie first visited the house – abandoned 20 years but still standing, despite New England winters that would cave in most roofs. People know that the danger of leaving a house uninhabited is that it soon becomes home to all kinds of creatures who create holes.  Though there's something growing through the floor, no animals seem to have made the cottage their home.  Including local teen age party animals.  No beer cans. No condoms.  This cottage, lived in through 1971, has no phone or electricity.  Why?  Marblehead is hardly abandoned rural America.
Then, there are the ripe tomatoes growing in the cottage garden on years-thick stems in June.
Tomatoes – in this garden are perennial – which is in fact true of tomatoes.( I looked it up) But only in the tropic climes.
By book’s end, one realizes these knee jerk moments may have been clues to the family’s powers over plants, early clues that things in 1991 are not what they seem. Unfortunately, by the end I was paying more attention to the twitches than the story. 
Ironically, Deliverance Dane’s interwoven story—the historical one which I have not talked much about here is the more soberly realistic, more academically researchesd; Connie’s more recent one the more hysterically supernatural—a reversal of some dominant belief systems of their respective time periods.
A New York Times best seller, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, must appeal to many. Just not me.  When I try to imagine its audience, I think young girls, maybe those who are enthralled by all things vampires and witches, along with syrupy romances.   I think maybe I'm just too old. Too crochety.
            After all, I’m a victim of the 1960s and early ‘70s myself. My own literary preferences were forged during my education in those times, much of it around Boston.
         Which brings me to….. The author’s silly attempts to render local accents into print completes my complaints. Why do these various New Englanders have to sound so ridiculous?
I don’t like my reading to put me in such a snarky mood. Maybe Connie’s annoyance is catching. Or maybe, it’s not the book. Maybe it’s me. Bitchy me. Witchy me.
 I pick up The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I mumble a few words. I feel electricity surging through my hands. I see blue.
Poof! I shut the book with these words:
The End.


  1. Beautifully expressed Barbara and I could not agree more about the banality of the book. I shall be exercising the same magic powers on my copy.

    1. Thanks for your support on this one -- I knew we agreed. Those echoes bother me a lot. I suspect some of the book's tone may be a very bad Hawthorne imitation. The Scarlet Letter is among my favorite classics.

  2. I felt the same way about this book. After several chapters, I didn't bother to finish it.