Witches and Spirits and Spells – Oh My!! As this wonderfully told story unfolds you will become acquainted with all of these. Connie Goodwin is a graduate student at Harvard University, doing summer research to determine the topic for her doctoral dissertation on American Colonial Life. She sits for her oral qualifying exam being chaired by her graduate advisor, the terrifying Professor Chilton. Their last request for her is to provide the committee with “a succinct and considered history of witchcraft in North America.” And so the scene is set.
The rest of the book flips smoothly back and forth between the 1690s and the 1991 story of mystery and intrigue. The year 1991 is significant because it was pretty much pre-cell phone and internet. As if Connie does not have enough on her plate, her aging hippy mom Grace who reads auras in New Mexico, presents her with a formidable task. And you just don’t tell Grace no.
Since Connie’s Granna Sophia’s death 20 years ago, the 200-year-old family home in Salem has stood empty and neglected. The back-tax folks are coming after Grace and she tells Connie to clean the house and handle the sale. Connie and her good friend and roommate, Liz, head for Salem. They almost miss the house completely because the property is so overgrown with vegetation. Arlo accompanies them on the journey and leads them through the tangly mess.
One evening soon after she first arrived on the Harvard campus, Connie was leaving class when a small form hiding under a rhododendron hedge emerged and followed her across Harvard Yard. She was unsuccessful in her efforts to find the owner of the little dog of undetermined origin so Arlo became a part of her life. Arlo is important.
Connie stayed in Salem in the house and began the formidable task of house cleaning. She had scarcely begun when Arlo happily bounced in with a dirt-clumped mandrake root. Creepy! One evening, unable to sleep, Connie prowls around and finds a 17th century Bible. She carefully opens it and a key with a hollow shaft falls out, delivering a small electrical shock to Connie in the process. In the shaft she finds a yellowed paper with “Deliverance Dane” written on it. Remember that Connie is a graduate student of American Colonial History and accustomed to research. She begins her quest to find out who or what Deliverance Dane is/was.
The events leading up to the infamous Salem Witch Trials play out in the flashbacks and we meet several generations of women healers. Life is hard and folks do what they must to stay alive and deal with sickness, hardships and death. Ignorance plays a large part in what happens as do the inflexible religious zealots of the time. The townspeople come to believe through innuendo and rumor that certain women are putting the entire community in actual danger through the use of malicious magic.
Katherine Howe, the author of this book, descends from two of these women – one who survived the witch trials and one who did not – and is herself completing her Ph.D. in New England Studies. She moves seamlessly between the centuries and paints a good visual picture of life in Colonial America, circa the 1690s.
Loving history and mystery as I do, I was captivated by this book. There are some minor things that I take issue with, like how the water still runs out of the faucets in the 20-year abandoned house with no electricity? Even with a well, don’t you need electricity for a pump??? But I can forgive that because the rest of it is so intriguing and filled with the wonders of discovery as Connie flits all across New England on a major research project. (Remember there was no Internet!) She had found clues in her grandmother’s house that led her to believe that out there somewhere a physick book, described on the cover as “a rare artifact of singular power …a repository for lost knowledge,” still exists.
Along the way she meets a handsome and intelligent man. Got to have that romantic interest but everyone is here for a reason – don’t forget the dog! Her quest eventually leads her back to Boston and Professor Chilton, lurking in the stacks as she … Well, you’ll have to read it to find out the details. Remember “just because you don’t believe in something, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
Margaret Partee can be reached at Margaretfirstname.lastname@example.org.