Sunday, June 6, 2010

Daughters of the Witching Hill and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

Purely by coincidence, (or….was it? insert maniacal laugher here ) I read these two fascinating studies of witchcraft and politics back to back. Although set nearly a century apart, and in different continents, they make terrific companion pieces. Both are works of fiction, set against real events, and ask the question “What if the witches, hanged at Salem and elsewhere, and long presumed innocent victims of hysteria and superstition; what if at least some of them really were witches?”

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt, is the story of a true incident in Lancashire, England during the 16th century. A family of “cunning women”, or Blessers, is accused of witchcraft in order to further the ambitions of a nobleman. The protagonist of the story is Elizabeth Demdyke, who lives during a time when doctors/barbers bled the humours out of starving patients, midwives put knives under beds to cut the pain of child birth, and life expectancy of a nobleman was about 42 years old. A noblewoman was lucky to make 30 after 10 or so pregnancies.

And Elizabeth and her family were no noblemen. Keeping starvation and homelessness at bay were the task of the entire family, and they did what they had to to survive. Bess discovered early on that she had a gift for blessing animals well, potions, and healing. Aided in this by her spirit friend, Tibb, she keeps strictly to light magicks, and wholesome arts. Until the day she is begged by her dearest and oldest friend, Anne, to help her protect her daughter from the son of the local landlord. With no protection, no rights, and no justice, the women do what they must. But the taste of power goes to Anne’s head, and she and Bess part ways over Anne’s dark path.

Bess’s granddaughter Alizon, is the narrator for the latter half of the book. All her life she has run from her families gift, and she lives in terror that Anne’s malice, or her brother’s lunacy will expose the family to ruin. In a time when practicing Catholicism is a capitol crime, her family’s adherence to the old religion is enough to see them hung, never mind the whispers that hang about the two families like a miasma. When Alizon loses her temper and shouts at a local peddler, resulting in a stroke, the innocent suffer with the guilty when the local landowner steps in to curry favor with the devoutly Protestant King James.

Mary Sharratt brings these characters to life in their flawed, sympathetic, bawdy, rich, colorful detail. I particularly like the names of the familiar spirits of the witches: Tibb, Fancy, Ball. The vivid glimpse of a maypole dance in rural England; the dark, heavy glare from the pulpit of the Reformed Faith, eager for the scent of the old religion’s idolatry and incense. The powerlessness of starvation; when parents feed their children mud so they can sleep with a belly that feels full. Who is guilty in such a world? And who is truly innocent?

Beautifully written, a story of tragedy and misused power, I highly recommend Daughters of the Witching Hill.

Oh, and as an amusing aside…while recovering from a migraine the other night, and channel surfing, I heard the name “Elizabeth Demdyke” coming from the television. I found the station again only to discover that the British Spook Show “Most Haunted” is claiming to be followed around by the “Pendle Witches”, featuring Elizabeth Demdyke. On this episode, she had apparently followed them to Wales. Odd coincidence, that.  The old girl really gets around.

Daughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN-13: 978-0-547-06967-8

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane by
Katherine Howe

Connie Goodman is a graduate student at Harvard working on her thesis in American Colonial History. As she searches for the subject of her thesis, she come across the name Deliverance Dane, and gradually comes to realize that Deliverance is one of the Salem Witches, thus far undocumented in history. As the mystery unravels, Connie finds herself drawn into the past in a very real way through visions. Fascinated, Connie goes on to discover that Deliverance is a distant relation to her. And that Connie herself may have inherited some of the gifts that Deliverance, Connie’s grandmother, and mother share. As Connie’s powers grow, so does her ability to sense those who do not have her best interests at heart. Eventually Connie’s search leads her to the search for the grimoire, or the “Physick Book”, the book of recipes, Deliverance handed down to her family as the key to understand the mystery.

A very sweet and tender love story also develops with the story of Deliverance Dane. A local steeplejack named Sam helps Connie solve the mystery and face down the danger that the search for the Physick Book brings. Connie’s mother, an endless source of irritation for Connie, also becomes a source of inspiration as the pieces fall in place.

An interesting note about the author, Katherine Howe, is that she herself is the descendant of two of the accused Salem Witches: Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the panic, and Elizabeth Howe, who was condemned.. She is a gifted writer who brings the past alive in a way that makes it just as real as the present. The two existed side by side in a natural, although mystical, way. Howe has the historian’s fine eye for detail, and brings the 17th century world of woman alive with wry humor; her characters are bold, fresh, and just plain likeable.

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane is Katherine Howe’s debut novel, and I’m already looking forward to the next one. I predict a brilliant literary career ahead.

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane
Katherine Howe
Hyperion Books
IBSN: 978-1-4013-4133-6

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