I’m having such fun with this book club I joined. Our book for June was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.
Connie, a graduate student trying to survive her oral exams, inherits (of sorts) a dusty, dirty old house that belonged to her grandmother. She moves to the house in the summer to clean it up and sell it, but what Connie doesn’t know is that this house will unlock a secret in history dating all the way back to the Salem Witch Trials.
The book is a fascinating read, imagined by the author through her own dissertation work at Boston University. Every day she would walk her dog on the trails between Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts, the cities the book takes place in. Howe states the characters in her book are not autobiographical, but they are well developed nonetheless, and she herself is descended from two Salem Witch historical figures: Elizabeth Proctor, who survived, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not. Spanning the Witch Trial days and the decades that followed in conjunction with present day, she webs together a cunning woman of the 1600’s with a 1990’s stressed out student!
Last summer, I vacationed in Boston, MA, and took a day trip to Salem with my boyfriend. If any of you have upcoming vacations that way, plan to stay overnight! All the good graveyard and witch tours happen at night! As it was, we weren’t in on that loop, so we had to catch our train back to Boston, but we did spend a full day in Salem. Salem is a beautiful, seaport town with a mix of past and present in its streets. The locals you’ll meet are just as diverse covering the full spectrum of love/hate for the tourists that flock to its city, especially at Halloween. The city offers such tourist and historical attractions like the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Pirate Museum. Plus, almost all its shops offer psychic readings, tarot readings, palm readings, and a vast array of magical potions and herbs if it interests you.
We toured the Salem Witch Museum. The main room is set up like a theater, and you sit around the edges with its “stages” encircling you. The lights go up on various scenes to reveal still models in period dress, each depicting a moment during the Salem Witch Trials as the audio narrates. The role of Tituba in the Salem Witch Trials is not widely known, but she was a servant in Reverend Parris’ house. A slave from Barbados, Tituba would entertain the children with magic tricks and scary stories. Her name was the first name cried out from the “afflicted” girls. After that, many more women were accused of the craft. The most shameful accusation was that of Rebecca Nurse, a respected, God-fearing, elder member of the community. It is suspected her plea of guilty came more-so out of fear and misunderstanding than anything else. Historians say she was questioned twice at trial, but she was old and hard of hearing, causing her to nod in reply than speak up. She was one of the 19 people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.
The hangings weren’t the only punishments given during during this time of suspicion and fear. A man named Giles Corey was actually pressed to death, with logs and boulders stacked upon him as a torture method to make him name additional suspicious townspeople. His last words are reported to have been, “More weight.”
In addition to the 20 deaths following the trials, many of the accused “witches” spent months in prison awaiting a suitable judge to arrive to port. And even those that weren’t hanged suffered a life in prison. At the time, if you were imprisoned, it was up to your family to pay for your imprisonment and upkeep. If you could not pay, which many of the lower class families could not, you rotted in jail for a lifetime to pay off your debt.
Many of the leading figures of the Salem Witch Trials make an appearance in Howe’s book, giving it a rich historical setting, and new perspective on its haunting past. The book is full of several mother-daughter relationships, providing great discussion at book clubs, if you’re looking for a new read. And since the main topic is uncovering Deliverance’s physick book, also called a spell book, receipt book, Book of Shadows, you can count on a little magic sneaking its way in.
As for Howe’s writing style, it was said by several book club members that the beginning is a little slow. I agree, at times the description of Connie’s actions or internal thoughts dragged on, but this is absolutely a book to stick with, unanimously liked by each member, especially the ending! It brought up a lot of interesting conversation about character development, gender then and now, how our perception of the world is based on the world we grow up in, and of course, witches! Do you believe in witchcraft? How has the term witch changed over time?
What do you think? Do you believe in magic, or is it all a bunch of hocus pocus?
Also, what’s a great next read I should tell my book club about?