Connie Goodwin is a graduate student at Harvard, just trying to jump through all the hoops academia requires for her to get a doctorate. She’s just leaped successfully over another hurdle when summer arrives and her mother calls from New Mexico to ask her to go up to the Salem area to clean out her grandmother’s very old house to sell. She’s not too excited about the prospect of having to basically set aside her studies for a bit and use her summer to do some seriously heavy work, but she does it nonetheless.
Naturally, Connie discovers some curious things when she arrives at the very grown-over house, which hasn’t been lived in for years. A search along the bookshelves (using an oil lamp as light because the house doesn’t have electricity) reveals an old Bible with a key stuck inside it. Even odder than having an old-fashioned key falling out of an old Bible is the fact that the key holds a rolled-up slip of paper bearing a name: Deliverance Dane. This sets Connie on a quest to find out more about the name and its significance.
Connie’s studies have revolved around colonial culture and the witch trials in Salem, and her search for more information about the name naturally ends up dovetailing with her academic research. It does so so nicely, in fact, that her academic advisor gets involved as well. Curiously, he gets oddly too invested in her search for what is called in various sources Deliverance’s “receipt book” or “almanac,” and his behavior becomes a bit mysterious and even disturbing as the book proceeds.
The story alternates between Connie’s current life and search for information and the involvement of Deliverance in the witch trials.
An intriguing bit of information about the author’s background is that she is the descendant of two women accused in the witch trials — one who survived and one who did not. Elizabeth Howe makes a short appearance in the novel as the accused women are hanged.
Katherine Howe makes an interesting case for the history of the era, for the culture of the time that not just brought about the hangings of a number of innocent women, but for the Old World and even colonial culture of magic and natural remedies, for the history of “cunning women” who helped cure “bewitchments.” It’s obvious she herself is earning a doctorate in these same studies because sometimes her book reads a bit like a collection of theses: a bit academic, sure, but interesting nonetheless. The book was hyped a bit when it came out, making it seem to be THE book of the summer for its genre, so it was a little underwhelming given the hype. However, it’s still a reasonably gripping novel with lots of interesting bits of history to learn about.
Rated: Mild, for a few uses of mild language and a few of moderate language. There is reference to sex happening a couple of times, but there is no detail whatsoever.