by Katherine Howe
I’m joining Jain with my Edible Book Review at Food for Thought, a delicious blog for readers with an appetite for the written word.
I enjoyed this spellbinding read about a disturbing yet fascinating time period in American history~ the Salem Witch Trials. From 1692 – 1693, 150 people were imprisoned and charged with witchcraft~ 29 convicted, of which 19 were hanged, one man crushed to death with stones, and five died while in prison.
Harvard graduate student, Connie Goodwin’s plans to spend the summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation are interrupted when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie’s grandmother’s abandoned home near Salem. In her preparations, she discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written on it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery draws her deeper in the mysteries of her grandmother’s house and launches Connie on a scholarly quest that puts her education as a historian of American Colonial Life to work—to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a ‘physick’ book (also known as ‘medicine’). . . its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
The action travels back and forth 300 years, where we see bits & pieces of Deliverance’s life and the trials, and back to the current year 1991, in Connie’s life. The 1991 time frame is significant because it was a time that hovered between technologies where historical data were not yet entirely computerized. As a researcher, you were destined to spend hours hunched over card catalogues to find volumes you needed in the library. I thank the internet gods for Google everyday :-)
Connie finds her way to her grandmother’s home which has been vacant for over twenty years:
“Connie recognized most of the herbs standard to a home kitchen garden: thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, a few different mints, fat turnip greens, dandelion leaves, dense soft dill blossoms, short tufts of chives that had not been harvested in years. Connie’s eyes moved over the plants along the far side of the garden, alighting on some obscure flowers that she knew only from horticulture books: monkshood, henbane, foxglove, moonwort. A thick, ropey belladonna clung to the left corner of the house, sinking in its roots deep into the wooden framework.”
“… the hand that was holding the Bible vibrated with a hot, crawling, pricking sensation—something between a limb falling asleep and the painful shock that comes from unplugging a frayed lamp wire.”
“The Bible lay open on the floor, raked by the glowing light from the oil lamp, surrounded by a rising cloud of dust stirred by its fall to the carpet. Kneeling on the floor Connie reached forward to gather up the Bible when she noticed something small and bright protruding from between its leaves.”
“It was a key. Antique, about three inches long…”
“As she warmed the small metal object in her hands, puzzling about what it could mean, she noticed the tiniest shred of paper protruding from the end of the hollow shaft.”
“It was brown and stained, barely as long as her thumb. On it, in watery ink barely legible in the flickering light, were written the words Deliverance Dane.”
Researching, Connie discovers:
“A widespread vernacular divination technique mentioned in several sources, and found to occur as late as the first decade of the nineteenth century, was the so-called ‘key and Bible.’ In this simple process a key would be placed inside a large heavy book, usually a Bible, and the supplicant would ask a question aloud while holding the book. If the book turned over and spilled out the key, then the supplicant could assume the answer to the question was ‘yes.’ ”
“Another widespread vernacular divination technique, similarly crude but available to all regardless of social class, was the so-called ‘sieve and scissors.’ This process consists of balancing a sieve atop an open set of shears and asking a yes or not question.”
“A now-familiar tingling, stinging sensation collected in the palm of the hand that was holding the scissors handle, shooting vibrating, nearly painful energy through her fingers, up her forearm, and down the blades of the scissors. A bluish glow crackled in the empty center of the colander, shooting forth miniature jolts of electricity in the empty center of the colander…”
Despite the serious subject matter & tone set during the Salem witch trials, I thought I would take a few liberties with Food for Thought & interject some fun since we are on the eve of Halloween. There was always a cauldron bubbling in the 17th century. . .
My cauldron is bubbling with a recipe courtesy of Southern Living. Witches’ Chicken Brew Soup~ no eye of newt is boiling in this kettle :-) Primarily chicken and white beans~ this soup can be garnished however you prefer. We ate it with cheese, sour cream, cilantro. A recipe can be found here.
To accompany Witches’ Brew Soup, I’m serving up some Finger Sand-Witches :-), recipe found on Pillsbury’s website here.
To some extent witchcraft was real, not in the way we think of it today. Cunning folk or wise people sold services ranging from basic divination (of which I only have a vague knowledge of from Harry Potter :-), healing the sick and locating lost articles. Connie is a scholar and not a believer in witches~ spouting facts regarding the origin of witch hats to her friend, Sam:
“The tall pointy part derives from a fifteenth-century headdress called a henin, and the wide brim is a simplified form of the English wimple. Common middle-class women’s headgear in the late Middle Ages, basically. Nothing inherently witchy about it.”
Connie also explains to Sam that Black cats were a stand-in for a familiar, which was “a devil or spirit in the guise of an animal, that did the witches bidding.”
So with witch hats & cats in mind, I made some Linzer cookies~ using some Halloween Linzer cookie cutters I found at Home Goods with the recipe on the back of the box.
And I decided to add a few bats in the spirit of Halloween :-)