Best Book of the Week!
Connie Goodwin has just passed her orals in history at Harvard and is one thesis away from her doctorate when her advisor, Manning Chilton, challenges her to find an undiscovered primary source on which to base some subject about Colonial America. She is almost immediately side-tracked in her research by a request from her mother to sort out her grandmother’s long-abandoned house in Marblehead and sell it to pay off back taxes.
Connie finds a very old, filthy house with a gate so overgrown with vines that it’s hard to find the house. Almost immediately she has a few odd glimpses, as if she can vividly picture her grandparents and other people in the house.
While sorting through the objects and papers in the house, she finds evidence of a woman named Deliverance Dane, who was found guilty of witchcraft in the Salem trials and left behind a “recipe” book, possibly of spells. Chilton immediately begins putting pressure on Connie to find the book, as it could provide the first evidence that people were actually practicing witchcraft at that time in Massachusetts. As Connie searches for the book, she makes some astonishing discoveries about her family and herself.
Back in the 17th century, Deliverance Dane, a wise woman or healer, is called to attend a child she cannot save. When the child dies, her father accuses Deliverance of satanism.
Some small things at the beginning of the novel irritated me. In laying the foundation of some basic history, I think Howe condescends to the reader a bit too much. For example, she finds occasion to tell us what a familiar is. Although many people may assume that all familiars are cats and find out differently from this novel, I would be surprised if people didn’t know what they were, if only from remembering their grade school lessons about the Salem witch trials. But perhaps I’m wrong.
There are also a couple of instances where Connie takes awhile to figure out something that she, as a graduate history student, should already know. For example, she doesn’t immediately know that “receipt” is another word for “recipe,” and then she has to explain this term to her professor, supposedly an expert in Colonial America. I am no historian or even generally interested in this period of history, but I knew immediately what the word meant. She does the same thing with figuring out that “Deliverance Dane,” mysterious words on a piece of paper, is someone’s name, as if in all her studies of the period she never encountered such an unusual name.
It is also very easy to see where the novel is going and who will turn out to be a villain. However, I still found it interesting enough to regard it as a strong first novel, especially if you enjoy the mixture of historical fiction and the supernatural. The characters are believable, and both story lines kept my attention. The historical portion seems solidly researched.
And I won’t mention the tomatoes, because it’s just too picky.