Some novels weave their spell on the reader slowly, their incantatory prose administered drop-by-drop, page after leisurely page. Often, such books are written by women and concerned with the unique intelligence of women—which can become a predicament in a man’s world. Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell come to mind. Sylvia Townsend Warner and Marge Piercy practiced the craft in the 20th century. These cunning women of fiction—and their unforgettable company of heroines—can now welcome a new voice to their choir, Katherine Howe, whose questing character Connie Goodwin must find her arduous way into the heart of women’s ways of knowing.
Even the novel’s title, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, requires more time to pronounce, and chapters go by before its meanings unfold. A Harvard doctoral candidate, Connie learns that “Physick” is the 17th-century word for an herbal remedy, and that Deliverance Dane was a Massachusetts woman who knew this medicinal craft and kept her recipes—which she called receipts—in an almanac. Connie must discover the hidden location of this old volume of spells (there’s no better word for what they are), but she discovers so much more along the way: great personal danger, unanticipated self-knowledge and love, in both its natural and preternatural aspects.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 epitomize a moment when a society felt threatened by the notion of women’s uncanny power. At strategic points in the novel, Howe recreates, with harrowing vividness, intimate scenes from that historical crisis. The cunning woman Deliverance Dane stands heroically on trial against the madness of her Salem community. Her ordeal is all the more tragic because she embodies a simple but staggering question that Howe dares to ask of that dark history: what if witchcraft were real, but completely misapprehended by its accusers?
The novel raises another question, which may not have been intended by the author but feels just as compelling: what if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were told from the point of view of Hermione Granger, who attends Harvard instead of Hogwarts? Buy Katherine Howe’s beautiful novel to try out this literary recipe.
Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.