Monday, August 30, 2010

A Perfect Read for the Coming of Fall

It feels like the summer is slowly slipping away here. It’s been gray and rainy all day with that nip in the air that makes me think of October and red-gold leaves covering yards with corn husks and pumpkins appearing on front porches and lampposts. I may not have grown up in New England but Central New York can carry that feeling of spookiness that comes with fall and All Hallows Eve with the best of them (when of course it wasn’t snowing by then. Sadly, I do come from the land where kids’ Halloween costumes are designed to fit over snowsuits…).

I finished The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane this evening and enjoyed every creepy word of it. The story follows a young PhD candidate, Connie Goodwin, as she moves into her grandmother’s abandoned house for the summer and discovers a key in a Bible with one name attached to it: Deliverance Dane. The name takes her an adventure through the archives of Boston and Salem in search of a forgotten woman who died during the Salem Witch Trials and a mysterious book passed down through the women of the family, a family she just might have more of a connection with than she thought. The book alternates between 1991, Connie’s time and flashbacks to the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. The book was written by Katherine Howe, a PhD candidate herself in American and New England Studies and a descendant of two women affected by the Salem Witch Trials, one who survived and one who didn’t.

So, I kind of loved this book but it took me a few chapters to get into the story itself. What did throw me at first was the use of the Puritan dialect in the flashback chapters. I’ve never been a fan of dialect in my books; I feel like it’s the writer making it intentionally difficult for me to get the meaning of the words being spoken by the characters. Also, Howe’s use of the phonetically correct spelling common at the time wasn’t always fun to get through either. But once I got through that barrier, I found myself drawn into the hunt for the physick book. Connie is a resourceful, brilliant young woman who is starting to question everything she believes in the closer she gets to the book. I rooted for her the whole way though I will say I was often a step ahead of her. For someone who is supposed to be going for her PhD, she wasn’t always the best at reading the signs in front of her face, leading me to yell at my book repeatedly to try to help her along. Her mother, Grace, is a great, kooky character who is always going off on auras and her dissertation adviser, puzzling and yet fascinating. Some sixth sense tells the reader it’s a character that must be up to no good and yet you never can quite bring yourself to believe it.

The book also did a great job of evoking New England; I could easily picture the small villages with long memories the characters move through. It was one of the things I loved about visiting New England, the coziness and yet the famous strict "properness" of the area. I think it’s why this book fits so well with fall and the colors and feelings I associated with it, it is an autumnal book, ending on the Autumn Equinox. I hesitate to associate it with All Hallows Eve (I just love the mystery and smoke that those words evoke – so much cooler than Halloween) simply because it is attached to witches, the Trials, Salem etc. but it fits so well. It’s a spooky read, making you question the possible in that great ghost story way.

My one major beef with the book is the portrayal of archivists and librarians. Now, I realize this is an occupational hazard of mine. I am an archivist and I think of myself as a fairly approachable, knowledgeable archivist always willing to help people when they come to me. Apparently, this is not how they do it in New England. Every archivist or librarian in the book is portrayed as old and grouchy, or at least grouchy as she does add a few disinterested students to the library ranks at one point. Writers, please for the love of Pete, stop portraying archivists and librarians like this. I promise we like people. We like helping people. We want to share our collections with people. Honest.

That said, I recommend this novel for a great fall read. Curl up with a hot glass of apple cider and a thick quilt and dive into the story of a witch and her spellbook.

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