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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Posted in Genealogy in Fiction

Readers of this blog may not realize I have a book blog where I discuss all my reading. I am currently reading a book I think would appeal to genealogists, and I want to cross-post a blog entry from that blog here in the hopes that some of you might enjoy it, too.

I am about halfway through The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and what a delightful read it has been so far. Not since I first picked up Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander have I read a book that contains a confluence of so many things that interest me or that I can relate to. First of all, I was taken aback when the protagonist, Connie, referred to her grandmother as “Granna.” That’s what I call my grandmother, and I have always believed I invented it. I had to do a Google search to assure myself that other women have indeed been called Granna. You can learn more about my own Granna here.

Second, Connie studies Colonial American history, a time period I have always found fascinating. She finds a mysterious key with a piece of parchment tucked inside its pipe or barrel or whatever you want to call the hollow part of an old key. The parchment has the name Deliverance Dane written on it. Connie sets out on a quest to find out more about Deliverance, whom she discovers was part of the Salem Witch Trials furor in 1692. I have been fascinated with this aspect of American history since about fourth grade. I just couldn’t believe that people in my own country, which prides itself now on freedom, had acted in such a bizarre fashion. I still don’t understand it.

Finally, in the last chapter I read, Connie is reading the diary of Prudence Lamson Bartlett. I was struck by how similar the diary entries were to my own great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s own diary—so devoid of comment on emotions (although Stella occasionally discusses being irritated at someone), so repetitive in their description of the seemingly menial tasks of life. But as Connie says, “In some respects, Prudence’s daily work was her inner life” (158). In the last entry that Connie recounts, this is the entire text:

Febr. 24, 1763. Too cauld to write. Mother dies. (163)

I felt tears well into my eyes, despite the seemingly lack of emotion on the part of Prudence. Connie ascribes it to Prudence’s “cold practicality, her obstinate refusal to reveal her feelings, no matter how culturally proscribed” (163). My own Grandma Stella’s diary was so similar in the respects of recounting the weather, the daily work, where she went, what she bought and how much it cost. I could feel her relief when she wrote the following entry for April 4, 1894:

I paid Mrs. Bragg $7.50 for board & am now even. Owe no man anything (i.e. in $ and cts.)

On the day when her own grandmother died, she wrote:


Homer & I went to town early.
Grandma died at 6 P.M.
Mr. Amos came & we came home.
Bought a buggy from John Houston $20.00.
Papa was at Aunt Panthea’s.

It couldn’t be more like Prudence Bartlett’s diary in the way it recounts so much pain alongside the mundane. It’s so spooky that if I didn’t know better, I’d swear Katherine Howe must have cribbed my genealogy blog! If you like, you can read my Grandma Stella’s journal (PDF). I transcribed it from a photocopy of the original.

Staying up at night reading this book under the low light of a book lamp over the last few nights has been a pleasure indeed, and I can hardly wait to see what happens next in Connie’s research.

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  1. That sounds like a great book. Cross-posting it was a good idea. I, for one, appreciate the time it took you to write about your reading and you were right — it can be very helpful to genealogists/family historians.

    July 10, 2009
  2. You know, Dana, I’ve seen this book in bookstores and I was tempted to buy it. After your review, perhaps I will. Thanks for the review!

    July 24, 2009
    • It’s a good book, and I think it has a lot of appeal for genealogists.

      July 24, 2009
  3. Joan Condon
    Joan Condon

    I’m about halfway through the Katherine Howe’s book, as well, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. I purchased the book because it is in part set in Colonial Massachusetts with the witch trials as a subplot. My ancestor was Thomas Danforth. Although he was a participant in the initial council that investigated accusations of witchcraft in Salem in 1692, Danforth was not a judge during the trials and worked behind the scenes to end the process. According to his friend, the seventeenth century diarist Samuel Sewall, Danforth “did much to end the troubles under which the country groaned in 1692.”
    It does seem contrary to how we think Puritans would have behaved, but with something like “a perfect storm” it did all happen.

    September 1, 2009
  4. Ruth Knight
    Ruth Knight

    I am currently reading this book and am enjoying it immensely. I have always been facinated by this period in our countries history.

    October 18, 2009
  5. Ann Birkner
    Ann Birkner

    I recently finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author being an historian extraordinaire gave so many details about life in those times it gave an education in itself in that regard. I live in Peabody, MA next to Salem so the story really hits home in a sense. Us Peabody historians get our “hackles up” when Salem gets all the hoop-la regarding the Witch Trials, Haunted Happenings, etc. when many of the “witches” were from present day Peabody. Oh, well…… I was a bit confused by the ending of the book as I thought Deliverance died an old woman while living with her daughter. But alas I can’t find the passage where I thought that appeared. I am passing the book on to a friend who is a museum curator. I am sure she will also enjoy it.

    October 21, 2009
  6. Kathy McConnell
    Kathy McConnell

    I had a problem with the book because Deliverance was one of my ancestors. She was not hung as a witch and I think that it is improper to say that she was.

    January 25, 2010
    • Eliabeth

      That’s the beauty of fiction…you can write it however you want. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Maybe you should do some research and write about your ancestor?

      September 26, 2011
  7. I picked this book up at the library because of my own connection to the trials – Mary Esty. So far, I find it fun to see someone else run with clues to lead to your self!

    January 31, 2010
  8. LaWanda Reider
    LaWanda Reider

    One of the things that stuck out in your blog to me was the part where people stated the pain rather matter-of-factly. There is often not much emotion shown in old letters and diaries. I think that is partly because just surviving was such a difficult task that people did not have the opportunity for self-fulfillment. My great grandmother had nine children and only 5 lived to adulthood, and only 3 lived to an old age. Death and tragedy was so much a part of life that it was almost expected. I always notice in old pictures that not very many people smile. Most look downright tired and worn. It is so hard to even conceive of how hard life was for our ancestors.

    August 25, 2010
    • Probably! I know it seems like they were always working. We are lucky to have easier lives (in some ways).

      August 26, 2010

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