The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (Voice 2009)
First line: “Peter Petford slipped a long wooden spoon into the simmering iron pot of lentils hanging over the fire and tried to push the worry from his stomach.”
Last week I was in a slump. I was in the middle of FIVE books, and I still somehow didn’t feel like reading any of them. The three books I was reading in print were all non-fiction (two of which I was reading at a slow and structured pace, so I was already caught up on those two), and I have very particular parts of my day that I would read an eBook or audiobook. I was craving a fiction book that I could hold in my hands and get lost in its story. So I pulled three books out, one from my Fall Hopefuls stack and two kind of random ones from my TBR bookcase, and read the first bits of each of them. Or, that was the plan anyway. One of them never got cracked, because I immediately became immersed in Deliverance Dane’s story.
Although we are introduced to Deliverance in the first chapter in the year 1681, this story is actually more significantly Connie Goodwin’s, PhD student at Harvard, where she is studying American Colonial life. It’s the summer of 1991, and Connie has just passed her qualifying exams, meaning she is ready to start research for her dissertation. Her advisor, Manning Chilton, suggests she find a new primary source to base her studies on, and she is determined to impress him, when she gets a call from her mother. Connie’s grandmother’s house, having been abandoned for the past two decades since her death, needs to be sold in order to pay the town of Marblehead the back taxes owed on the property, and Connie (being less than an hour from Marblehead) needs to be the one to do it. Begrudgingly, Connie decides she will take the summer to clean out the old house and put it on the market. After all, Marblehead is an old colonial town, right near the famous Salem, so maybe she’ll stumble across something for her research in the process. Stumble she does, and on the first night there, Connie discovers an old key buried in the pages of an ancient Bible, and inside the key is a small slip of paper with the name Deliverance Dane. Connie’s got a hunch that this name might lead some where, and so she, and the reader, is off on the hunt.
There was a lot that I loved about this novel, but mainly it was a vibe thing. I just listened to the most recent episode of Currently Reading yesterday, where they discuss the very scientific designation of “spoopy books”, and this book definitely fits in that category. Not quite spooky, but definitely gives off an atmospheric vibe that places it squarely in a fall reading list. Campus setting, a house that has no electricity, alchemy and ancient symbology, dusty old books in dark library stacks, Salem witch trials… there’s a lot that just oozes “spoopy.” And I loved every second of it. Add to that an interesting, easy romance, a multiple timeline narrative, and a loyal dog, and you’ve got an excellent combination of elements.
I’m glad I was undeterred from the terrible reviews it has on Goodreads. Although it has a fine star rating (3.7), almost all of the reviews I read were 1-2 stars, and these readers were angry. Going back after I’ve finished, I can see their points, but honestly, I feel like they need to ease up a bit. I don’t think this was supposed to be a masterpiece of literature. I think it was meant to be a fun, atmospheric escape, and that’s exactly what it was for me. I’m going to make sure I add my review, just to counter the hate a little bit.
For 95 percent of the books on my shelf, I bet I could tell you where, when, or from whom I got them. But I have no idea where this book came from. I’m pretty sure I bought it, but it was certainly on a whim, in the same way it was that I picked it up last week. And I’m sure glad it was here to whisk me away from my slump. Was it the best book I’ve ever read? No. Was it even that great? Probably not. But it was just the book I needed right now, and thus, it was perfect.