[spoiler warning! yikes!]
“The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” by Katherine Howe pretty much jumped at me from off the shelf and so swung me into its world. Its loaded with of my favorite story elements: an old decrepit family house, a long family history of powerful, magical women, plenty of scholarly studies going on and last but not least, amore.
I am still impressed that this book had all this going on and still held a real soul at its center. “A book with a soul?” you might inquire. “Let me continue,” I say.
Many years ago, a dear professor let me know, as I studied magical realism in literature, that as northern caucasian women, we would never be able to write magical realism ourselves. Our culture, our history was all wrong for it. This made me furrow my brows but I saw her point. At the same time, I didn’t see her point at all. And I’d like to think that “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” is a good candidate for magical realism in Northern American culture. Women coming over from England (around the 1600’s) brought over a lot of folklore, a lot of remedies, some which were contained in grimoires and other writings. These remedies, while using various things in Nature, had a strong magical bent and were carried out by “cunning” women and men.
This book explores the fictional history of one line of “cunning” women and how the earlier ones related to God in Puritan culture. And I think this is where the soul of the book lies. Whether these women had magical powers or not is pointless but they did have something special whether it be special knowledge and a healing gift or whatever. They had the gifting and they used it to help others. Deliverance Dane believed that God had given her this gift to share and to her that’s the point of this life, to give the help we contain in ourselves to others.
Perhaps because of where I am in life, this spoke to me very deeply. And despite those years ago, I remember that same thread of thought running through the magical realism books I had read before by Allende and Morrison and others. Whether we believe in God or not, giving whatever (flavor of) magic we contain in ourselves is one of those best things.
I also appreciate how Howe took the time and effort to put a strong and gifted woman into a very difficult culture and to really ponder out what could have plausibly happened to Deliverance Dane. And not only that but to ponder out Deliverance’s beliefs in everything that was going on around her. The ending is a sad one, of course because this is the time of the Salem witch trials but this book is a rare treat and one I’ll enjoy again.