Tuesday, December 29, 2009

BOOKS: Two historic towns and madness (Katherine Howe)

From The Washington Times --

BOOKS: Two historic towns and madness --

By Philip Kopper --
December 20, 2009 --

By Katherine Howe
Hyperion, $25.99, 371 pages

By Elyssa East
Free Press, $26, 291 pages

Two books make fascinating forays into a storied corner of New England and two occult worlds — contemporary and colonial — with special reference to ancient witchcraft, modern sociopathology and that timeless element of the human condition, evil. Given the coincidence that the narratives occur in two historic Massachusetts towns, a dissonance between them is more important: that one is a delicious novel and the other a tart sachet of history and journalism.

It bears mention that each book arose from its author's graduate work, Elyssa East's in an art history project, Katherine Howe's in the hybrid historical discipline, American studies. Was there ever a better argument for going to grad school? If a parent worries about the expense, don't quarrel. Tell them: "But Mom, Dad, I might get a best-seller out of it."

In "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane," Ms. Howe spins a sort of white magic to create from whole cloth a splendidly persuasive community in Marblehead upward of three centuries ago. It has real historical similitude as she weaves details of colonial life that differ from our own, such as the use and meanings of words. "Physick" has to do with human health, healing and the botanical substances used to treat illness; "Deliverance" is a given name in a period when parents often named children for desired virtues. (Does anyone name their daughters Charity any more, let alone Chastity? Or their sons Increase?)

It might seem too cute or autobiographical that the book opens as Connie Goodwin, doctoral candidate, is actually sitting for her oral exam before a panel of august Bostonians. The dust jacket states, "The idea for this novel developed when Howe was studying for her doctoral qualifying exams and walking her dog through the woods between Marblehead and Salem."

Be that as it may, Connie is convincingly human — by turns pedantic, intellectual, curious, sexy, anxious, sly, nervy, bitchy and justifiably terrified. Like her creator, she too has a dog, Arlo. Connie passes the acid test of her orals, then (conveniently) must find a subject for her dissertation under the supervision of a predictably duplicitous Yankee professor who is at once sympathetic and driving. A pipesmoker in tweeds, he coddles his grad students while using them as indentured intellectual servants to dig up new grist for the corpus of his own lifelong scholarship into colonial occults.

Summer comes and Connie sojourns to Marblehead to claim and tidy up a house she has inherited. Standing vacant for 20 years, it is a derelict overgrown and alive with spores of its past lifetimes. Her long-dead grandmother was a gardener and healer, like some of her ancestors, thus a feral garden surrounds the place: "instead of a lawn, riots of wild herbs and plants … standard to a home kitchen garden: thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, a few different mints." There are obscure flowers that Connie "knows only from horticulture books: monkshood, henbane, foxglove, moonwort." She asks, "Hadn't Granna known that a lot of those flowers are poisonous?"

Of course Granna knew, how else to explain the root that Arlo digs up and drops at her feet, mandrake, "among the most poisonous plants known to man." Flashback to 1682 and neighboring Salem's infamous witchhunts. Enter the title character Deliverance Dane, in due course an accused "witch that she ha' murdered his darter [daughter] as part of her pledge to do the Devil's work."

Thereafter the narrative swings back and forth between Connie's world and the colonials'. At one apogee, our heroine advances her academic search for as-yet-undiscovered source material, nay the aforementioned Physick Book. At the other, Deliverance and her daughter practice their arcane arts and find their fates. If Ms. Howe's denouement is a bit forced and tidy, her counterpoint is genuinely entertaining and the two worlds delightfully realized. Furthermore, it offers some genuine social history.

"Dogtown" is a more difficult book that starts in academe. In search of a study topic, Elyssa East became an almost accidental author after stumbling on the work of the early 20th-century artist Marsden Hartley and found it mesmerizing. She was especially taken by the abstract landscapes he painted in a bizarre wild place that captivated him near Gloucester on Cape Ann. The place called Dogtown was wild when Harley found it and much of it had been denuded by logging. Its strangest feature was and is a scattering of huge boulders in extraordinary shapes and configurations, erratics in the vocabulary of geology, pushed here by Pleistocene glaciers millennia ago.

Ms. East found it a magical setting, albeit much of the magic is black. Boggy and thin-soiled, this had been a hard place for human habitation since early English immigrants settled here. They ultimately abandoned it, but people kept coming there, drawn by some impalpable attraction. Some moderns say it lies above an electromagnetic hotspot, others that it is simply and irrevocably haunted. According to one local mystic, nature is "constantly broadcasting across a frequency that only a few knew how to turn in to. Dogtown happened to be one of the places where the signal was strongest. And when people listened to the earth, it listened back." But it was not always benign.

Twenty years before Ms. East arrived, Dogtown was the scene of a particularly heinous murder. A gentle schoolteacher who loved those now-deep wild woods was attacked while taking one of her long rambling walks on a rainy morning. The killer smashed her head with a rock, stripped off her clothes, then dragged her body from the trail and hid it. When her husband went searching, he was led to the body by her faithful dog.

The book "Dogtown" is a fabric of many strands: the murder; the trial and conviction of one Peter Hodgkins, a local ne'er-do-well who appears crazy by every standard except legal ones; the failure of our institutions to cope with his madness; the human history of the place; its geology, botany and ecology. One pedestrian theme is the sorry possibility that Dogtown may be developed as real estate. A more moving theme is Dogtown's healing affect on some troubled souls, the artist Hartley for one, the author for another. She closes with an epiphany in a discovery that the reader had best experience for himself.

Consider: "The silence of this rock grove was so deep it seemed as though I could hear the sound of the trees drawing up water through their roots, the lichen and moss breaking rocks into dust, the soft burrowing of every animal. It was as though the Earth's hidden, most essential forms had risen up from deep inside its core and spilled over into this little valley." Dogtown is one of those special places to see before you die. Deliverance Dane is a dame I'd love to meet.

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