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Strange Magic in New England

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 12, 2009

THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE

By Katherine Howe

Hyperion. 371 pp. $25.99

This charming novel is both a tale of New England grad-student life in 1991 and the Salem witch hunts in 1692. The year 1991 is important here because historical data were not yet entirely computerized; if you were a university researcher, your destiny was to spend the Lord's amount of hours hunched over card catalogues to find volumes you needed in the library. It took forever and ruined your posture and your disposition. And cellphones, though extant, were owned by few. It was a time when we hovered between technologies. A little like the 1690s, when we were certainly past the Dark Ages, but the scientific method was not yet widespread.

In 1991, Connie Goodwin is a graduate student at Harvard in American Colonial studies. She's embedded in that life, living in student housing with her best friend, a classicist named Liz. She prods and bullies Thomas, her anxiety-ridden protege, and she is, in turn, completely under the thumb of an intolerable professor, Manning Chilton, a Boston Brahmin bachelor who wears club ties, shows his teeth in a thin-lipped smile and delights in tormenting his best student, Connie. He is her graduate adviser and should be on her side, but even as she passes her oral examination, which will advance her to candidacy for her doctorate, he begins to nag her to come up with a suitable dissertation topic.

Non-academic life intervenes. Connie's mother, Grace, an aging hippie in Santa Fe, phones to say that her own mother's house in the town of Marblehead, Mass., must be sold to pay back property taxes. Could Connie please go up there, spend the summer cleaning up the place and get it ready for sale? Connie is exasperated, but she complies.

The house is completely hidden from view, lost in shrubbery. (Her dog, Arlo, an important character in this story, is the one who finds it.) Connie's grandma Sophia lived in it as late as the '50s, but there's no telephone, no electricity and just one oil lamp. The place is a couple of hundred years old, at least, and sports a fireplace that doubled as a stove in days past, fitted out with iron bars designed to hang kettles and cauldrons on. Everything is covered with dust, and the garden is overrun with rank herbs. Arlo happily brings in a dirt-clumped mandrake root, generally used for casting deadly spells. Spooky!

The first night there, unable to sleep, Connie creeps downstairs to look through shelves of old books. "She had never really known Sophia," she thinks. "Who was this odd, stubborn woman?" At that moment, the Bible she's holding springs open, giving her something like a nasty electric shock, and a key falls out, with the name Deliverance Dane written on a rolled piece of paper. What can this possibly mean? Connie vows to find out.

Meanwhile, we've been following the back story of the real Deliverance Dane in the 1680s and '90s, as she lives the life of a quiet but accomplished village woman, very skilled in healing the sick, but racking up more than her share of enemies.

It's worth saying here that the author, Katherine Howe, has spent time as a graduate student in New England studies, and that she is a descendant of two women who endured the Salem panic of 1692, one of whom survived, one who didn't. Her central thesis in this novel (if a pleasant thriller can be said to have a thesis), is that, while we may think of the witch hunts as symbolic of the decline of the Puritan theocracy or as a cultural shiver between the age of superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, the good folk of Salem thought they were hunting real witches. They believed -- with deadly certainty -- that fellow citizens were putting the entire community in actual danger through the use of malicious magic. Along with this, Howe floats the idea that there are still, right now, genuine psychic healers -- maybe witches -- among us. (A clerk in a modern-day tourist shop that features witch paraphernalia offers to make Connie a charm -- because, by now, in her search to find out about Deliverance Dane, she might be in danger. When Connie scoffingly refuses the offer, the clerk warns her, "Just because you don't believe in something doesn't mean it isn't real.")

Connie neglects her housekeeping duties and gallivants from town to New England town, trying to pin down the identity of Deliverance Dane. Along the way, she meets a handsome, intelligent fellow who has also done graduate work and makes a living now as a steeplejack. They share a common interest in the past and develop a very sweet romance. And Connie tracks down fact after fact, name after name in card catalogues across the region. She is consistently hectored by two people: her mother, who finally accuses her of not being able to see what's right in front of her face, and Manning Chilton, who not only exhorts her to come up with a dissertation topic but to "look vigorously for new source bases." In other words, he wants her to find fresh material so he can steal it for himself, the fiendish cad!

I liked this book very much, but I want to ask the author's editor to please, in the future, keep her from wrapping or folding her characters' arms around their middles. And also point out that Connie's shoulder bag gets dropped on the floor so often it begins to sound like a character itself. But these are minor complaints. And by the end of this book, as any graduate student should, Katherine Howe has filled us in on much more than we used to know about that group of unfortunate women who paid the price of their lives due to a town's irrational fears.

See can be reached at www.carolynsee.com.

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And look for a special Summer Reading edition of Book World.

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