A first novel about alchemy, magic and witchcraft, set unsurprisingly in Salem, Mass., in the late 17th century and also, perhaps surprisingly, in Marblehead, Mass., in 1991.
Connie Goodwin has just passed her doctoral oral exam in colonial American history at Harvard, and she looks forward to working with her mentor, Professor Manning Chilton, on breaking new ground in her dissertation. Then Connie gets an unexpected call from her New Age-y mother Grace, who is about to lose the house in Marblehead she inherited from her own mother because she’s neglected for 20 years to pay the taxes on it—can Connie get it cleaned up and on the market for her? The house is, of course, eerie as well as abandoned. As Connie begins to look through Granna’s house, she picks up an old Bible that gives her both an otherworldly feeling and an electric charge. Out of the Bible falls an antique key with a tiny scroll bearing the cryptic words “Deliverance Dane.” Ever the good historian, Connie begins to track down the name. Eventually she finds allusions to a “Physick Book”: a manual of medicine used by knowledgeable women in the colonial era, but also a book of spells. The volume seems ever more elusive as Connie’s desire grows stronger to track it down. She’s also feeling some uncomfortable pressure from Professor Chilton, who wants the book as badly as Connie, ostensibly because he thinks it will be helpful in a scholarly presentation he plans to make but more overtly because he seems to have some sinister agenda of his own. Howe alternates her narrative between Connie’s groping attempts to track down the truth about the past and flashbacks to the real story of Deliverance Dane. We learn that she was a witch condemned in the 17th century, desperate for good reasons to keep her book hidden from ecclesiastical authorities.
Informative, though not as creepy as it purports to be.