Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

I’ve been on an academic/paranormal kick these days.  After finishing A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness which I’ll review later, I picked up Katherine Howe’s 2009 novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  After reading both books back to back, I have to say that “Physick” is my favorite of the two, despite the global popularity of “Discovery.”  Although both books deal with the subject of witchcraft, Howe’s novel is more subtle, but even eerier than Harkness’s “Discovery” due to its understated quality.

“Physick” shifts seamlessly between two worlds: 1991 Massachusetts and 17th century Salem where the witch trials have reached fever pitch.  In the present, doctoral candidate Connie Goodwin is preparing for her oral exams in Colonial and New England History.  Howe was also studying for her oral exams when she first began her imaginings of “Physick” and the scene in which Connie sits for her exams could only have been written by someone who has gone through the ordeal.  I even found myself breaking a sweat as Connie answers painfully intricate questions about New England history that only the most diligent scholar would know. 

After her exams, Connie is made caretaker of her grandmother’s old home in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  Again, Howe drew from personal life, having moved to Marblehead with her husband in 2005.  The home has been vacant for years and has no electricity or telephone service.  As Connie fixes up the house, she comes across a hollowed out key which holds a fragile piece of parchment with the name “Deliverance Dane” scrawled on it.  Like all good academics, Connie is curious, and so begins her search for Deliverance Dane, a possible victim of the Salem Witch trials that perhaps was not as innocent as the other men and women who senselessly lost their lives.  In fact, Connie herself might possess powers that not even she is aware of. 

I should note here that another interesting twist in Howe’s own story is that she is related to Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe who were both accused of witchcraft.  Elizabeth Proctor was released from prison in 1693.  Elizabeth Howe was hanged along with four other women on July 19th, 1692.

Woven in with Connie’s quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane is a power struggle with her academic advisor, Manning Chilton, whose interest in Connie’s research might be more for his own gain than hers, as well as a romantic entanglement with a local steeplejack which gives some enjoyable lightness to the book.  Howe also shifts back in time to examine the lives of Deliverance Dane and her heirs who had to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the trials.

Howe’s work is a prime example that academics can also be creative.  She develops a complex plot with witty dialogue, and pulls from personal experience to create an engaging story.  I haven’t had the honor of meeting Howe, but I have watched several interviews and follow her on Twitter, and she is absolutely delightful.  Being an academic, she is able to give a good deal of historical context regarding the choices she makes in her work.

If you enjoy The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, you’ll want to check out Howe’s second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving excellent reviews and is set shortly after the sinking of the Titanic.  Howe is also working on a third novel that I am eagerly awaiting.
For more information about Katherine Howe and her books, you can visit her website:, Facebook page:, or Twitter:@katherinebhowe

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Slouching Towards Grad School

So all the neuroses were for nothing.  Despite wondering if my acceptance letter had been sent to me by accident, I have completed my first semester as an MFA candidate in Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Nonfiction Program.  As I write this, I look at a picture of two new friends, Adry and Naomi, and I at a party making the duck face.  I wish someone could have shown me that picture on those sleepless nights in late August.  However, I had to relearn the old lesson that things rarely turn out as disastrous as I imagine.

I was guided through this semester by good friends, professors, and family who held my hand every step of the way.  Mom picked me up from school every Wednesday night because I would have had to wait two hours for the train.  Jenny, David, and Suzanne taught me how to read carefully, write effectively, and teach passionately.  My peers coaxed me out of my shell and invited me to study sessions, readings, and parties. 

This semester I had to relearn the benefits of discomfort.  Susan Sontag said, “A free life is one in which you are willing to be uncomfortable some of the time and insecure some of the time.”  I’d have to say I lived about as free a life as I ever have these past three months, experiencing various degrees of anxiety from the end of August until my second essay went through workshop on Halloween.  I would rather have gum surgery than repeat that process again, but I grew more in those two months, as well as this past month, than I did in the last two years.  I learned that the fulfilling life is not one where you take the easy way out, but the one where you do something you might fail at. 

My writing was not as good as I thought it would be, but still better than it’s ever been.  I’ve learned that not every essay has to read like a novel, and that it’s ok to write about that time on the train, or losing your friend.  I have also relearned the importance of surrounding myself with people more intelligent and more talented than I am, because they all taught me how to be a better writer.  I am finding my own voice by looking for the voices of my peers and professors in their writing.

My work is praised and my confidence rises: I am becoming a better writer.  My work is critiqued and my ego is bruised: I am becoming a better writer.  One professor said that workshop is a great place to crash and burn, and I have.  My friends have shown me how to put the pieces back together.

So the next cavalcade of anxieties is waiting around the corner.  I will be teaching some unsuspecting undergrads next semester and I will be submitting new work to new eyes for new praise and critique.  I will have to relearn the old lessons.  I am terrified and I am elated.