Day 1029: The Fifth Petal

Cover for The Fifth PetalFans of Brunonia Barry will be happy to hear her novel is out. Like the others, this one is set in the vivid backdrop of Salem, Massachusetts, and features some familiar characters. It also harks back to the Salem Witch Trials. Although some of the characters appeared in her previous novels, it reads perfectly well as a stand-alone.

When Callie Cahill was five years old, her mother and two other young women were viciously murdered on Halloween. They had been performing a memorial ceremony for five of the women hanged during the Salem witch trials, to whom they were related. One woman who was supposed to attend the ceremony was missing.

Callie was present at the time, as was Rose Whelan, a noted historian who helped the young women research their ancestry and took them in. Rose saved Callie by hiding her, and when she was found the next morning, she had gripped her rosary so hard that she had a rose-shaped scar on her palm.

Callie was told by the nuns who raised her that Rose died, but when she learns Rose is alive, she returns to Salem. Rose has been mentally ill since the event, and she sometimes sleeps under the oak in Rafferty and Towner’s yard.

Rafferty was not in Salem at the time of the murders, but Rose has committed a crime, Salem thinks, and that awakens an interest in the old case. Rose was accosted by three boys, one of whom held a knife to her throat. Rose told the police after the original murders that they were committed by a banshee and she had taken the banshee inside herself. According to her, when the boy was threatening her, she let the banshee out. She shrieked, and the boy died.

Rafferty returns to the old murders to find clues, but evidence is missing. He thinks that finding the fourth woman related to the original witches will help him solve the case. Assuming that each woman, including Rose, makes a petal in the five-petal rose Rose was using as a symbol, he calls this woman the fifth petal. But she has vanished.

link to NetgalleyCallie’s memories of that night are returning, but they are patchy. And she has met an attractive man in Paul Whiting, the son of a wealthy family.

This Barry novel stands up well to the others, although The Lace Reader is still my favorite. Callie is an interesting heroine, and the mystery is a difficult one. It is nice to see more of Rafferty and Towner, as well as Zee, from The Map of True Places. The novel wrapped in the history of Salem quite nicely, and the town provides an atmospheric setting.

Related Posts

The Lace Reader

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The Witches: Salem, 1692

Day 861: The Witches: Salem, 1692

Cover for The WitchesIn The Witches, Pulitzer-winning nonfiction writer Stacy Schiff takes another look at 1692 Salem and its witch hunt. She explores the climate of New England at the time, particularly its paranoia and excessive religiosity, and why it was open to such an over-reaction. The book also explores the ramifications for the region for years to come.

Schiff quickly points out that much of what is “known” about the witch trials is apocryphal. There was no black slave, for example, but an Indian servant. Schiff reconstructs the events from what she can find, many of the official documents having been destroyed at later times, and the accounts, even of the official note takers, varying considerably from one another and interjecting opinion and descriptive wording that should not have been permitted.

The incident began with one household, where some of the children were subject to screams and contortions. This household was that of Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. The girls were a niece, daughters, and a servant, all teens or pre-teens. Schiff is fairly charitable in ascribing the state of these children to a condition that was later diagnosed as hysteria (a condition itself fraught with controversy), which generally affected young women leading restricted lives with little hope of change. Later, we hear of another householder who handled a similar condition severely and eliminated it. But Parris soon established it as witchcraft, and an even larger group of girls and other people who became afraid of being accused themselves were on their way to a lot of attention. As one of them put it (whose remark was ignored), “We must have some sport.”

They had their sport all right. By the end, 19 people and 2 dogs were hanged for witchcraft. Some of the girls would have gone on from there, but the colony finally declared there would be no more prosecutions and the behavior eventually stopped.

This is a fascinating book that explores such topics as permissible evidence, assumption of guilt, the treatment of people who protested their innocence versus that of those who admitted guilt, and the behavior of certain of the principal leaders of society. It finds parallels to other events much more recently in our past.

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Day 249: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Cover for The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneBest 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.

Day 148: The Map of True Places

Cover for The Map of True PlacesThe Map of True Places is another very good book by Brunonia Barry. Zee is a psychotherapist with a shattering past. The death of her patient Lilly, a bipolar housewife who jumped off a bridge, has brought back to Zee memories of her own mother’s suicide. Her father Finch was unfaithful to her bipolar mother with another man, and when Zee was 11, her mother committed suicide by swallowing strychnine. Zee came home in time to witness the fatal convulsions.

Zee goes to visit her father and finds that his Parkinson’s disease has turned to dementia and he has kicked his partner Melville out of the house. She decides to take a leave of absence from her practice to care for Finch. Trying to come to terms with the past and figure out what to do with Finch, she begins to doubt everything in her life. As she finds out the truth about many of the myths in her life, Zee also finds clues about what happened to Lilly in her final days.

This second book of Barry’s is also set in Salem, Massachusetts, and features some of the same characters as in The Lace Reader. I have really enjoyed both of Barry’s books. She creates a strong sense of place in the quirky Salem and populates her novels with complex, interesting characters.

Day 68: The Lace Reader

Cover for The Lace ReaderFrom the very beginning of The Lace Reader, the main character tells us she is a liar. The first time I read this book, I paid attention to that comment, but I could not detect any lies and eventually I forgot about that statement. As it turns out, Towner is not really lying, but Brunonia Barry’s novel is an outstanding example of the use of an unreliable narrator, and a haunting story.

Towner Whitney has not been home to Salem, Massachusetts, for 17 years, ever since her twin sister Lyndley committed suicide and she herself had a breakdown and was institutionalized. Now her brother calls asking her to return home because her great-aunt Eva has disappeared.

Towner’s female relatives are all unusual. She comes from a family of lace readers–people who can read the future in a piece of lace–and although she refuses to read, she is clairvoyant and can read people’s minds. These abilities, which she rejects, make her feel unstable, especially since she has gaps in her memory from electro-shock therapy. Towner’s mother May never leaves the island where she harbors abused women and teaches them how to make lace, and her aunt Emma has brain damage from a history of abuse by her husband Cal.

In Salem again, Towner waits for news of Eva. She learns that one of the police officers, Rafferty, is sure that Cal had something to do with Eva’s disappearance as he has been threatening her and other members of her family.

Salem itself is almost a character with its witch-based tourist industry, and now Cal has formed a group of religious cultists who call themselves Calvinists and who taunt the witches and threaten them with damnation. It’s a bad place for Towner to be, and she is just deciding to leave again when Eva’s body turns up.

The Lace Reader is a wonderful book, layered with secrets, an exploration in the difference between perception and reality. With an atmospheric setting, characters to care about, and a compelling plot, the book is a real page-turner. The last few paragraphs made me re-evaluate everything I had read.