Saturday is one of the best nights of the year in my neighborhood: Halloween. It’s the best because my street is one of the premium attractions in the city (in my unbiased opinion) due to the fact that six houses down from us is a full-on Halloween-inspired musical production staged on the front lawn. Each year it’s a different theme, but the show always has lights, sound, costumes, a stage, backdrop and usually a giant screen attached to the front of the second storey of the house. A bunch of families on the street get together to put on the show, so there are kids and adults involved and it’s always hilarious. They do about 4 shows throughout the night and the street is basically shut down to traffic the crowd gets so big. Since we’re so close, we get a lot of trick-or-treaters. A lot. Like 250+ a lot. It’s great. For us it’s pizza and mini chocolate bars on the porch with friends who bring pumpkins so that we end up with a whole bunch glowing up and down our front steps.
Inspired by the year’s spookiest holiday, I present two witchy reads that I delighted in over the summer: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, and Witch Child by Celia Rees. I had read Rees’ book before, and loved it, so this time I thought I’d get the audiobook for something different. Can I tell you how excited I was when I found out that it is narrated by Jennifer Ehle? (If you don’t know why that is exciting, then I’m guessing you’ve never watched this, say, 5 times. Go. Watch). I ended up listening to the one while reading the other, which was perfect, and I highly recommend this approach if you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in all-things witchy this Halloween.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is an adult title, but I think it has some crossover potential with the right, academically-inclined sort of teen. It has a past/present structure that I often find appealing, when it’s handled well. In the present the story centres around Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin, who is just about to choose a subject for her doctoral dissertation and then spend the summer researching. Her mother asks her to take care of selling her grandmother’s old house close to Salem, and when Connie arrives at the run-down place, she finds herself falling under its spell. She discovers a key hidden in an old Bible and inside the key is a small piece of parchment with a name written across it: Deliverance Dane. Connie begins investigating and as she learns more about this mysterious woman she wonders if there are ties that bind her to Salem in ways she had never imagined. She begins hunting for a book that she believes belonged to Deliverance – a physick book containing secrets, both medical and spiritual, of days long gone. Set against the present day narrative is the story of Deliverance and her family and their struggles as they get caught up in the witch trials of the 1690s.
This is a good book to cosy down with on an afternoon when you don’t have anything to do (because I know we’ve all got lots of afternoons like that, right?), preferably a chilly afternoon involving a couch, a blanket, a cat and a cup of tea. It will draw you in and Howe creates an atmosphere of mystery right from the start. The descriptions of the grandmother’s old house, almost completely closed off from the world by vines and ivy and garden, are especially vivid. I thought it was an interesting and innovative idea to approach this oft-used historical period from the perspective that witchcraft may indeed have been real, just not in exactly the way you might imagine. Two tiny complaints in an otherwise completely enjoyable read. First, the sections of the book set in the 1680s and 90s felt outweighed by the narrative in the present day. At times, I was frustrated that more attention and length wasn’t given to the plot thread in the past, since it was sometimes more compelling than the events with Connie. I found myself flicking ahead to see when the next “past” section was coming up. Also, I felt like it took too long for Connie to find the physick book, almost to the point that the tension dissipated. I can see why Howe might have chosen to delay, but there was some lag in the momentum about 3/4 of the way through the book. Overall, a moody, semi-suspenseful look at a popular historical period, with a new angle that will make you rethink the witch trials.
Witch Child is the perfect teen warm-up for Deliverance Dane, in the way that it presents witchcraft as a real practice, but not a devilish one. Mary Nuttall witnesses her beloved grandmother hung as a witch and then a mysterious and beautiful woman whisks her away from this nightmare to safety. The woman has arranged for Mary to travel to the New World, where she will become a part of a community of Puritans. Too bad those Puritans aren’t any keener on witches than the English folk Mary left behind. It really is too bad, because Mary is a witch. She admits to it. When she arrives in the New World she ends up in Salem and she learns that keeping her power secret is as difficult and important as ever. I found Witch Child to be completely gripping (you might say, bewitching… ha ha). It is in diary format, bringing you right inside Mary’s thoughts and point-of-view and Rees’ writing is evocative. I like it when you find a character in historical fiction who feels somehow contemporary in her perspective and concerns, but who remains true to the period. I suggest reading it and then listening, the way I did. Jennifer Ehle’s performance is exceptional. Too bad she hasn’t recorded the sequel.
There is a sequel to Witch Child, called Sorceress, but I haven’t read it for some time. Maybe I’ll get my hands on it before tomorrow. Perfect reading for when the candy runs out and we close down shop for the night.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is published by Voice. Witch Child is published by Candlewick (paperback edition).