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Conjuring Salem and witchcraft, minus modern overlays


Katherine Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Hyperion/Voice), has spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Photo by Brian Pellinen

In 2005, Katherine Howe was a graduate student living in Marblehead, Mass., anxiously preparing for her oral exams in BU’s American and New England Studies Program.

“If I went walking and didn’t occupy my mind with something else,” says Howe (GRS’05,’10), “I would just turn back to worrying again.” She distracted herself by ruminating about next-door Salem and its history. “I knew that the reality of Salem looked very different from the fairy-tale version,” she says. “So I asked myself: if witchcraft were real the way the colonists understood it to be, what would it look like? How would it work?”

The result: Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Hyperion/Voice), which has spent weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list.

Like Howe, the book’s protagonist is a graduate student living in Marblehead. Connie Goodwin is cleaning out her dead grandmother’s house when, flipping through a 17th-century Bible, she finds a small piece of paper with the words “Deliverance Dane” tucked into the hollow shaft of an old key. She spends her summer in search of answers: about Deliverance Dane, an accused witch in 1692 Salem; about the “receipt booke” — or is it a book of spells? — listed in an inventory of the woman’s belongings; and about her own connection to that period.

Howe draws on family history. Among her ancestors were two accused witches: Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the trials in 1692, and Elizabeth Howe, who was executed. “The narrative,” she writes in the book’s postscript, “offered a unique opportunity to restore individuality, albeit fictional, to some of these distant people.”

BU Today: Why did you write a historical novel rather than nonfiction?
Howe: There has been so much amazing work done on witchcraft in America by so many prominent historians that attempting a narrative nonfiction account would feel like hubris. Also, fiction allows much more room for imagination.

Tell us more about the real Deliverance Dane and why you focused on her.
I was first drawn to Deliverance Dane because her name is so wonderfully evocative. It seemed dramatic, and foreboding. I also wanted to write about her because vagueness about her actual life left me lots of room to fill in a story.

The real Deliverance Dane was accused near the end of the trials, when the panic spread north from Salem into Andover. She was imprisoned for a short time. However, there is no evidence that she was a cunning woman, and she survived the trials relatively unscathed.

Is it true that no such “physick book” exists?
I am not aware of any North American examples of a physick book, though there are a number of cookbooks and guides for housewives from that time. A physick book from the eighteenth century was recently discovered and put up for auction in the U.K. Its recipes called for pike bones and dragon’s blood in a few instances, which is just a fancy name for red tree sap.

Two of your ancestors were tried as witches. How did you come to know about them?
I first learned about them when my aunt was doing some family research when I was about 15 years old. And of course I responded like a 15-year-old would — I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

For a lot of people, uncovering a family connection is a way to personalize a period of history that otherwise feels remote. I have been more interested in learning about daily life in that time period. What was it like to think like a Puritan? How itchy were the clothes? How dark was the meetinghouse?

Why was it important to you to bring all of these women to life?
The Salem episode is so different from what we expect when we think about colonial history or American culture that we are never fully satisfied about it. I have also long been struck by how much lionization of the New England colonists takes place. We ask them to bear so much symbolic weight that we forget these were people with strengths and flaws like anyone else. Elizabeth Howe, for example, was so widely disliked that the main complainants against her were her own family! So Physick Book gave me a chance to explore, albeit fictionally, these lost individuals.

Did you hope to better illuminate that period of American history?
It’s interesting to me how blurred our understanding of the Salem episode is; for instance, many people take The Crucible to be historically accurate, without considering that Arthur Miller took broad liberties with characters’ ages and relationships in order to craft a more coherent story. The historical truth of witchcraft is very different from the popular fairy-tale notion. The witchcraft in Physick Book is based on how colonists actually believed magic to be.

You taught a class at BU on New England witchcraft, but did you learn anything new about it while writing the book?
I am enormously grateful to the two classes of students who took New England Witchcraft with me. They kept me on my toes for two years while I was working on Physick Book.

The most striking detail in studying New England witchcraft is learning what kind of person was likely to be accused. Most accused witches were quarrelsome women, grumpy, outspoken, bitter, or otherwise disenchanted. Often they had grudges nursed against them for years that only came out when charges were finally brought. It is moving to see how colonial village life was bound up in gossip and jostling for social resources. It’s a powerful reminder about the darker side of the human character.

Why did you set the story of Connie, your protagonist, in 1991?
Although 1991 feels like the present, it is actually the past. Connie lives in a world without cell phones, without Internet research tools, and with a more byzantine academic culture. Many aspects of Connie’s story would not have worked in 2009. After all, it’s not so scary to spend the summer alone in a house on the North Shore without electricity or a telephone if you have great cell reception.

Are you working on another book?
I am. It is also historical fiction with a mysterious element, set in Boston in 1915. Tentatively called The Scrying Glass, the book will follow another unique New England family as it undergoes a shocking transition. I also have plans for a Physick Book sequel.

What do you plan to do when you complete your Ph.D.?
At this point I plan to focus all my energies on writing, though I confess I miss being in the classroom.

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.

A version of this article originally appeared in the summer 2009 Bostonia.

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