Monday, March 28, 2011

Recipe Books with an agenda ...

Maybe two or three years ago, I was at the beach with my family down in Ocean City, Maryland and as was usual for every one of our trips there - there was a day of non-stop rain. Usually on this day, the fam and I run off to the shops and check out the awesome selection that is to be found in America. And then we stop by Walmart, usually because - as there are three of us girls - we run out of hairspray.

On this particular trip I passed by the books section and discovered:

I wanted it badly then, but I had ten books in my suitcase already, so I tucked it away in the back of my mind and kept an eye out for it to buy later. Later came in the form of a trip to the Paperback Trade Inn in Troy Michigan, a place me and the girlfriends go from time to time to restock, as it were. There among the shelves was the paperback:

So, of course, I bought it.
And then I decided I would read it.
And here, my friends, is the review:


A spellbinding, beautifully written novel that moves between contemporary times and one of the most fascinating and disturbing periods in American history - the Salem witch trials.

Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.

As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past then she could have ever imagined.

Written with astonishing conviction and grace, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane travels seamlessly between the witch trials of the 1690s and a modern woman's story of mystery, intrigue, and revelation.
The book opens on a terrible night, where a young girl is sick in bed, her father is grieving for his daughter and his dead wife, and through the rain comes a young woman who brings with her some sort of soup ...

I am familiar with the Salem trials, as much as anyone who has never had the chance to visit Salem can be, anyways. It was a time of rampant insanity, if you ask me - but then, I am partial to the LSD theory of it all (I like thinking humans are good).

Anyways, it doesn't matter how much you know about the witch trials - just know they happened. In Salem. In 1692 ... and a little bit before and after in other parts, but essentially that's the key date. Some people - including an ancestor of the author - survived. Some others - also including an ancestor of the author - did not.

Katherine Howe is an MA History student, and as a HBA HIstory student, I could tell that right away - I saw the tendrils of working thesis in her work, and it thrilled me to realize I was reading things that were essentially the debates and conversations I remember from my university days. She is not entirely biased - she leaves space for belief in the other way of things, but she is very tight with the way she weaves the story. So much so, that you realize it is not the story that ultimately matters, not so much - it is the bonds between the characters, the attitudes and greivances, wants and motivations of the characters she writes that make the book a wholley different type of beast.

Particularly with the women - Connie is a great character. She's flawed, hopelessly flawed - stuck in her academic world, she feels safe and in control when researching and postulating on the past, but troubled and almost embarrassed by the present. She is not very knowledgeable about her own past, and seems to write it off whenever she can. But she is smart and sharp, and she knows how to get what she wants. And she exists in a post-second wave feminism world, and yet she struggled with it.

The worth and status of women is a theme that struck me as almost necessary in this book: to write about cunning women, witches, and society - you have to delve into this, I think. And Howe does it so compelling-like, drawing us into Deliverance's world, allowing us to believe and then smacking down our preconditions as they come up. It really was brilliantly done.

I do particularly like the part where Deliverance is being examined and she reflects that women are so often their own enemies - that pitting women against women is such a sad, but common tool by men who are in power, to stay in power. It is a thought that has often made me pause, and never was it so powerful as when I read it in this book. So well done!

I whole-heartedly recommend this book! And I do hope Ms. Howe continues to write - she does it so well, it would be a shame to lose her to the Ivory Towers so soon! If you're interested (like I was) check out the website about the book and its terribly awesome author, Katherine Howe, here. (Beware - hauntingly beautiful Audio when you click!)


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