The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Last week I mentioned I was taking eight classes at once and the columns would likely be shorter and more erratic than usual for a couple of months. Earlier this week I added another class, which is the act of a madwoman. In my defense it's a look at the Walking Dead TV show called Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC's The Walking Dead and taught by UC Irvine faculty, a title I couldn't resist. So far so good, I've been enjoying it very much.

In other news I'm practically drowning in reading material for the my plagues, witches and wars class. This week I read two books that featured witches, or at least accusations of witchcraft. One of them was also about the Black Death that decimated Europe for three hundred years or so. I hope to say a few words about that novel next week.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe is an interesting look at the inter-generational impact of the Salem Witch Trials. Unfortunately the writing is not the best and there were some obvious things that baffled the protagonist, who is a Harvard historian grad student and should have had this stuff down backwards and forwards. For instance she and her adviser are baffled by the use of the word receipt, which is an older word for recipe. I knew this when I was still in grade school, so why didn't Connie, the historian in question? There are some other discrepancies like that, which pulled me out of the story every time. There are also plenty of little details that irked this reader such as repeatedly describing aspects of characters as glittering and phrases along the likes of The dog's ears crawled to the top of its head. Kind of a creepy image.

But if you can keep those kinds of things from bugging you, which isn't that hard, you'll find plenty to enjoy about this book. With the majority of the book set in 1991 the narrative skips around in time, following the histories of a succession of women dating back to Deliverance Dane, a woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials. As the summer begins Connie sets off to a small town near Salem to ready her deceased grandmother's house for sale. She doesn't have many hopes for the place, which has been empty for years, and discovers the house is in even worse shape than she anticipated. It's practically falling down, but oddly still in good enough shape for her to move in while she gets the house ready to be sold to cover back taxes. (This is the kind of thing that annoyed me; the floor is so rotted in spots that a big mushroom is growing but it's fine to stomp around the rest of the house? No other wood is rotted? All the mold in the house doesn't make it hard to sleep? In beds that haven’t been cleaned or aired in decades?) Meanwhile her adviser exhorts her to find a brand new primary source for her dissertation. Much to her surprise she finds something in an old family bible leads to a mystery. While she is involved in following clues she meets a young handsome fellow, deals with her increasingly strange mentor, and experiences inexplicable and frightening events. Despite my problems with the novel I did enjoy it, especially the fortitude of the women through the ages. You can listen to an excerpt from the audio book here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is very different. It's an article from the CDC about using zombies as a metaphor for the spread of diseases such as rabies. “The reimagining of zombiism as a virulent, incurable disease makes it an effective analogy for understanding of and interest in other infectious diseases.” It doesn't just discuss the analogies between the two illnesses, it also gives a historical look at zombies in pop culture, going back several hundred years. If you aren't already familiar with the origin of actual zombies you should find this very interesting.