The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Physick Book of Deliverance DaneThe Physick Book of Deliverance Dane - Katherine Howe

Multiple timelines in a novel can be tricky. Each plot must be believable and developed on its own, and must mesh with and further the parallel narrative(s). A.S. Byatt's Possession and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time are nearly perfect examples of how two intricate stories can weave one satisfying fabric.

Yes, reader: I do set high standards for literary gymnastics. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was a Barnes & Noble recommended selection, and I expected a lot. Since I have recommended the book to friends, you may infer that I enjoyed it and wanted my friends to enjoy it as well. True. Do not infer, however, that it meets the standards set by Byatt and Piercy. It does not.

The modern (1991) story in this novel introduces Connie Goodwin, a graduate student of early American history who is spending a summer cleaning out the house of her long-dead grandmother, and searching for a scholarly topic that will satisfy her advisor. The two projects meet and mesh when she discovers a small paper in a centuries-old Bible that bears the name "Deliverance Dane." Her curiosity about Deliverance leads her to propose the research as her project, and her advisor agrees.

In the late 17th century, Deliverance Dane lives in uneasy times as a wise woman and herbal healer whose potions and attention are sought after by the sick. She knows the danger of being accused as a witch if she should fail to heal one of her patients. When a child dies, she is accused, convicted, and hanged. Her daughter Mercy follows her mother's last wish: she escapes from the town, taking her mother's book of remedies and spells - the Physick Book - to continue the work of healing and comforting those in need.

Over the years, women descendants have less use for, or belief in, the magic and potions, as science and medicine replace the old ways. The book itself becomes a mere object to be cataloged amongst household effects. It is sold, and misplaced in some bureaucratic tangle.

The sights, smells, sounds, and aura of each dip into the past are both compelling and repugnant to the modern reader who is used to sanitized images of well-known events. We do not often see the horrific conditions of the imprisonment, where accused and convicted women were chained in deadly squalor. Howe shows us the truth without a single gratuitous moment, contrasting the evil of the good folk who used torture and death in the name of their religion - without mercy, without introspection, and without logic. Howe's scholarship is thorough, and woven into the plot with grace.

in the present, Connie's efforts to trace Deliverance in local church records and archives yield both facts and a new boyfriend, Sam, who works as a steeple jack, preserving local architecture. When Connie discovers the facts of Deliverance's death, and the possibility of the survival of the Physick book, she brings the information to her academic advisor. His excitement seems both disproportionate and strange, especially when he posits a question: "Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?"

Connie is caught between what she has been trained to believe and this preposterous quesion. Can witchcraft and magic be true? Or, are they superstitions perpetrated by the ignorant and cruel? Her mother, Grace, always has believed in practical magic, and has practiced unscientific healing methods that have made Connie scoff. In addition, Connie has neither disclosed nor examined the physical shock she felt when she first touched the Bible, nor taken the mystical symbols that appeared on her grandmother's door seriously. Her advisor's demands and fixations become more troubling and vehement as her project progresses. How far from her dispassionate, scholarly path will she stray as she searches for the story, the book, and a solution to a mysterious and sudden crisis?

I think the author was wise to set Connie's story in 1991 rather than the present, where a few mouse clicks may have made Connie's legwork through the churches and archives unnecessary. The physical details of each building and record-keeper are vivid - more vivid than Connie herself. The old house she is cleaning has no electricity, so Connie illuminates the night with lanterns and candles. The advisor's odd behaviour conceals beliefs that are more strange than his apparent belief in the validity of the Salem verdicts. Sam is likeable, but pallid, Connie's dog is a loving companion (familiar?), and the reader is shown the academic and seaside beauty of Cambridge. Most of the present is convivial, almost cozy, in the way of some academic novels.

But - the two plotlines are not equal. The world of Deliverance and Mercy is vivid and compelling; Deliverance and Mercy are real characters whose emotions are true. Connie's story is - well - meh. It seems
a contrivance to bracket the past. Her research, love affair, and demented advisor are pale and paltry compared to the life-and-death struggles caused by ignorance in the past. And -- if the author is going to use magical realism, it has to appear with more consistency, and less as deus ex machina. (I found myself thinking "more cowbell.")Check Spelling
Why, then, do I recommend this book to friends and all? Simple : it's fun to read. Just don't expect Byatt or Piercy.

Note: if you wish to learn about the persecution of witches from the view of the social, economic, historical, and feminist issues that doubtless underpinned the pious religious prattle, read Never Again the Burning Times by Loretta Orion.

The Chosen One

Last night, I read the ARC of The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams that I received from Julie at Booking Mama. I intended only to read a chapter or two, but I read it at one gulp. Young Kyra, only 13 years old, lives in a locked compound led by The Prophet, and policed by The God Squad. The members of this religious group practice polygamy and believe that the word of The Prophet is the ultimate authority on earth. Although Williams avoids labelling the sect, her descriptions of the families, with women in long dresses and braided hair, call to mind the offshoot-LDS group depicted in "Big Love."

Kyra has a questioning nature, and has already begun to question the strict rules about reading books other than scripture, the rules that prevent her from calling outside doctor for her ailing, pregnant birth mother, the rules that require child abuse in the name of discipline - and, especially, the rules about the relations between men and women. She has been rebellious, as far as possible, by visiting a bookmobile, and by kissing a boy from the compound, but she is a loving daughter to all of her mothers, and to all of her siblings.

Her rebellion turns to panic when The Prophet decrees that she has been chosen to become the seventh wife of Uncle Hyram, gentle father's brutal, 60-year-old brother. Although her father pleads with The Prophet and his brother, Kyra is told that she must marry, or face disasters worse than the brutal beating she is given by The Prophet's enforcers. She knows that her family, also, will be punished severely by The God Squad, which not only delivers beatings, but is known to have murdered those who disobey or try to run.

The Chosen One is considered a teen novel, but Kyra's story is so riveting, so realistically-written, that anyone could read it and be caught up in her choices as the one chosen to live a life she never would choose for herself.

Thank you, Booking Mama, for sending me this book.


The Forest Lover

Emily Carr was a Canadian painter whose work was radically different from all other Canadian painters of her time. Not only did she choose Native subjects to paint - notably, totem poles - but she travelled alone through forests, Native villages, either on foot or via inland waterways, at a time when women's art was limited to delicate watercolours.

After Ms.Carr studied in France, learning about the post-Impressionists and Fauvist artists, her art changed dramatically as she began to add bold use of colour to her previously-representational style. Initially, critics were hostile, not only to her subject matter, but also her technique. It took many years for her to be recognized for her talent and prescience in selecting subjects that were, already, being destroyed by man and by time.

The Forest Lover is fiction, not biography. As fiction, most of it works well, taking the reader through the ecstasy of creativity and the despair of having one's art and oneself marginalized. As I read, I was swept into the extreme discomfort of Carr's travels and the joy of discovering the ancient meanings of the totem poles and Native rituals. I was happy to discover that some of the characters, especially the Squamish basket maker, Sophie Frank, were real people whose friendship helped to sustain Ms. Carr. The only characters and events in the book that did not work well for me were the parts that were purely imaginary - for example, the love interest, who never existed.

Vreeland herself writes: "...in order to show, and not merely report, certain aspects of Emily's character and history, particularly her difficultly with intimacy, I found it necessary to invent a man. I wish she hadn't.

If you decide to read The Forest Lover (and I hope you do), be prepared to want to know more about the woman, to see more of her paintings, and to search out all of Vreeland's novels about art. This book is that good.


Casting Spells

casting spells by Barbara Bretton Sugar Maple, Vermont, is a lovely town that is distanced from the evils of the world as most of us know it - a haven for ordinary people who welcome tourists to their shoppes, the inn, the playhouse, the library, and the storybook charms of quaint New England.

Chloe Hobbs, owner of Sticks & Strings, provides tourists and townies with yarn, knitting instruction, and the kind of hand-knitted sample items that can tempt even the most stash-stuffed knitter to open her purse. Every knitter knows that Chloe's store is the place "where your yarn never tangles, your sleeves always come out the same length, and you always, always get gauge." Sounds perfectly magical, doesn't it?

Well, it is, and it isn't. Actually, the town has flourished as a haven for ordinary-looking people who only drop their mortal mufti amongst themselves, when their true natures and skills can shine -- and a diverse group it is, what with the werewolves, selkies, wizards, faeries, shape-shifters, poltergeists, vampires, and trolls.

Other businesspeople in Sugar Maple are free to use their powers to create the inviting enchantments that delight tourists. (Productions at the Sugar Maple Arts Playhouse are easy to cast, since all of the actors are shapeshifters!) But Chloe, the product of a mixed marriage between a sorceress and a mortal man seems to have inherited no magic at all. Not a whit of it.

Chloe's friends are eager to get her married, hoping that she, like her sorceress mother, will find her magic when she falls in love. The townspeople are concerned about Chloe as well. As the only female descendant of the sorceress who enchanted the town and kept the magic folk safe for centuries, it is Chloe's presence that ensures the integrity of the spell.

But the spell has been weakening for awhile. Its vulnerability has been proven by the drowning death of a lovely young woman who had just purchased a delicate shawl from Chloe. This brings another threat to the town: a handsome hunk of a policeman from Outside, sent to investigate the death.

Chloe's friends have failed to find a suitable partner for her, try as they might: there had been neither magic nor chemistry between Chloe and the troll, or the selkie whose breath smelled like smoked salmon. But - when Chloe meets the hunk and shakes his hand, sparks fly - literally - and true magic enters Chloe's life.

A subplot about a power-hungry, purple-glitter-shedding faery and her desire to own the Book of Spells that was left to Chloe causes additional tension. Chloe's house is destroyed by the faery's warring sons. ("How was I going to explain this to State Farm?" she worries. Luckily, she doesn't have to, since her house is restored by morning, as if by wizardry.) (Or, by wizardry.) A town meeting about the weakening spell brings out all of the residents, including old vampires who have to insert their false teeth before they wheelchair it out into the night, an itinerant house sprite, a punked-out faery with tats and a pink iPod "permanently set too stun," and a witch who tells Chloe that "Banshees are imaginary."

(This same witch, observing Chloe in a startled moment, says "you look like you've just seen a ghost." Chloe laughs until she cries. So did I.)

Let's just say that this book delighted me, and will delight you. Trust me.

  • One cavil: Why did the town's librarian have to be a troll? Don't we librarians have enough of an image problem?? Barbara reminded me that Lilith is a glam troll with gorgeous red hair. True...It's also true that she utters the funniest line in the whole book.