Who Were the Witches?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

For someone as avowed in my atheism as I am, I have a hard-to-explain attraction to all things magic.  Perhaps it is something left over from my childhood, when Madeleine L'Engel and Terry Brooks were two of my favorite authors.  I've spent many hours immersed in the fantastical worlds of Tolkien and Donaldson and Gaiman-I love to get swept up in a world where the normal rules don't apply and a whole new mythology determines the actions of magical creatures.  Call it my inner geek-and I love her to the point of spending days playing RPGs like Final Fantasy.

It is a rare author that can combine the elements of the fantastic that I love with the "real world".  Michael Crichton did it in Timeline, and Neil Gaiman does it frequently in novels like Neverwhere and American Gods.  We can now add Katherine Howe to the list in her novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  The book centers around  Connie Goodwin, a Phd. candidate at Harvard in American Colonial history.  Her mother, Grace, a New Age aura reader living in Arizona, asks Connie to clean out her grandmother's house and prepare it for sale.  Connie, who never even knew that the house existed, travels the 60 miles or so to Marblehead, Massachusetts and begins the arduous process of clearing out decades of dirt and detritus.  She arrives to find a small house, hidden away behind a tangle of vines and an overgrown garden.  She discovers, hidden in a family bible, a key with the name Deliverance Dane rolled up in the shaft.  So begins her journey into the history of her family, and into a world where witches and vernacular magic really exist.

The story is framed in the history of the Salem witch trials, a shameful period in early American History if ever there was one.  The author, through Connie, explains the various theories people have about the whys and wherefores of the panic, long seen to be the product of perceived threats by women in the community against the strict Puritan teachings and leadership of the time.  As Connie delves deeper into the history, and mystery, of her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's missing book of "recipes", she discovers a new theory-what if the magic was real?

The book is well-paced, with a satisfying balance of exposition and action.  The descriptions of New England, both the geography and the social history, are well done and evocative.  The author herself is a descendant of two of the accused women-one who survived the trials and one who did not.  As a result, she takes a pretty dim view of the tourist attraction nature of modern-day Salem.  Her disdain is initially shared by her character, but as the book progresses reason and wonder battle in Connie's mind, and one can imagine that Katherine Howe herself wishes that the magic were real.

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