Author: Katherine Howe
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Pages: Hardback, 362
Publisher: Hyperion, 2009
Opening Lines: "Peter Petford slipped a long wooden spoon into the summering iron pot of lentils hanging over the fire and tried to push the worry from his stomach."
"Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within the seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discover launches Connie on a quest—to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
"As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of long-ago witch trials, and she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past than she could have ever imagined."
~ Jacket copy
In an attempt to add more structure to our classroom and do something the children want, the teachers in my grade-school classroom sat down with the kids and discussed things we would like to learn about. During the conversation, a lot of different history topics were brought up. Having a degree in English and a minor in history, I thought it would be absolutely awesome to read a young adult book about a specific time in history (i.e., The Big Burn) and then discuss the actual historical event. Honestly, I think I got more into the idea than the kids >.< Whether that's true or not, I was curious to read young adult fiction or contemporary fiction dealing with the Salem witch trials. The whole subject was always rather interesting to me, especially since it has almost turned into an American folktale. And, after doing a subject search on Goodreads, I found this little gem.
After being accepted into the PhD program at Harvard in Colonial American Studies, Connie Goodwin is contact by her mother. It appears as though her grandmother's house has finally built up an excess in back-owed property tax that the city is going to start taking action against Connie's mother. She begs Connie to clean out the house and get it ready for sale. Unfortunately, Connie is supposed to spend the summer researching for her dissertation and present her topics to her advisor. This, while proving an interesting opportunity, really throws a wrench in the gears.
While looking through an old bookcase to determine what books were too badly damaged, Connie stumbles on an old family Bible. Flipping through the pages yields an old key with an old piece of parchment in the end. On the parchment is written a phrase—Deliverance Dane—which she presumes is a name.
Finding this name sends Connie on an amazing adventure to find a primary source for her dissertation and a possible key to the Salem witch trials. In addition, it could shed an interesting light on the life of women—especially cunning women—in Colonial times.
This book spends a lot of time in the present; however, the audience is shown the story from Deliverance's POV and that of her daughter and granddaughter. Even though a lot of time is spent on Connie and the modern world, the author does a wonderful job welding these timelines together. And, in some ways, show similar struggles in the characters. In some ways, you can see how Connie is struggling with her different roles in life and new information and Grace's struggles being pseudo mirror images of each other.
For me, it was obvious that this was the author's first book. There was a lot of intellectual dialog and syntax. That isn't an issue for me; however, the average reader might be put off by all of it. At a few points, I even found myself looking things up. That being said, having a background in history, I feel as though I had a little added advantage.
Along with the syntax, I feel as though the characters were a little under developed. We don't see Deliverance, Grace, and Pru as much as Connie; however, I felt much closer to them. And they were far more sympathetic. Connie was too much of a stuck-up, book-wormy grad student. She was too much of a stereotype, which is an automatic turnoff. The author could have worked hard to flesh out the love interest. Just stating that he had a septum piercing and looked as though he was in a grunge band didn't tell me too much about him. Also, the whole plot surrounding her advisor felt a little too rushed, farfetched, and completely underdeveloped. A little more character development and time spent around that storyline might have greatly helped it.
I found myself put off by the time period. The "modern" portion of the book took place in 1991. Usually that isn't an issue, but I found myself constantly needing a reminder that it was '91 and not more modern. Something about the style of writing didn't feel as though it was taking place over two decades ago, nor did she author expressly tell the audience that. For that reason, the flow of the book was drastically broken for me.
All of that being said, the author spent a lot of time describing the setting, which made it feel even more real. She also appeared to know her stuff about the witch trials and doctoral programs. In addition, she posited some thought provoking theories about the trials and why they may have gotten out of hand. It definitely had me thinking and looking at occurrences in a completely different way.
For a book primarily read on van runs, in the bathtub, and before bed, it really turned out to be quite good. Yes, I had issues with it. And, yes, it took awhile to dig through. However, it was entertaining, kept me engrossed, and made me think about things.