Katherine Howe, a doctoral student in American and New England studies at Boston University, came up with the idea for her first novel, "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane," while studying for her exams.
The beautifully written piece travels between contemporary times and one of the most fascinating and disturbing periods of American history -- the Salem witch trials.
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"It would appear that we are nearly out of time," announced Manning Chilton, one glittering eye fixed on the thin pocket watch chained to his vest. He surveyed the other four faces that ringed the conference table. "But we are not quite done with you yet, Miss Goodwin."
Whenever Chilton felt especially pleased with himself his voice became ironic, bantering: an incongruous affectation that grated on his graduate students. Connie picked up on the shift in his voice immediately, and she knew then that her qualifying examination was finally drawing to a close. A sour hint of nausea bubbled up in the back of her throat, and she swallowed. The other professors on the panel smiled back at Chilton.
Through her anxiety, Connie Goodwin felt a flutter of satisfaction tingle somewhere in her chest, and she permitted herself to bask in the sensation for a moment. If she had to guess, she would have said that the exam was going adequately. But only just. A nervous smile fought to break across her face, but she quickly smothered it under the smooth, neutral expression of detached competence that she knew was more appropriate for a young woman in her position. This expression did not come naturally to her, and the resulting effort rather comically resembled someone who had just bitten into a lime.
There was still one more question coming. One more chance to be ruined. Connie shifted in her seat. In the months leading up to the qualifying exam, her weight had dropped, inexorably at first, and then precipitously. Now her bones lacked cushioning against the chair, and her Fair Isle sweater hung loose on her shoulders. Her cheeks, usually flush and pink, formed hollows under her sloping cheekbones, making her pale blue eyes appear larger in her face, framed by soft, short brown lashes. Dark brown brows swept down over her eyes, screwed together in thought. The smooth planes of her cheeks and high forehead were an icy white, dotted by the shadowy hint of freckles, and offset by a sharp chin and well made, if rather prominent, nose. Her lips, thin and pale pink, grew paler as she pressed them together. One hand crept up to finger the tail end of a long, bark-colored braid that draped over her shoulder, but she caught herself and returned the hand to her lap.
"I can't believe how calm you are," her thesis student, a lanky young undergraduate whose junior paper Connie was advising, had exclaimed over lunch earlier that afternoon. "How can you even eat! If I were about to sit for my orals I would probably be nauseous."
"Thomas, you get nauseous over our tutorial meetings," Connie had reminded him gently, though it was true that her appetite had almost vanished. If pressed, she would have admitted that she enjoyed intimidating Thomas a little. Connie justified this minor cruelty on the grounds that an intimidated thesis student would be more likely to meet the deadlines that she set for him, might put more effort into his work. But if she were honest, she might acknowledge a less honorable motive. His eyes shone upon her in trepidation, and she felt bolstered by his regard.
"Besides, it's not as big a deal as people make it out to be. You just have to be prepared to answer any question on any of the four hundred books you've read so far in graduate school. And if you get it wrong, they kick you out," she said. He fixed her with a look of barely contained awe while she stirred the salad around her plate with the tines of her fork. She smiled at him. Part of learning to be a professor was learning to behave in a professorial way. Thomas could not be permitted to see how afraid she was.
The oral qualifying exam is usually a turning point – a moment when the professoriate welcomes you as a colleague rather than an apprentice. More infamously, the exam can also be the scene of spectacular intellectual carnage, as the unprepared student – conscious but powerless – witnesses her own professional vivisection. Either way, she will be forced to face her inadequacies. Connie was a careful, precise young woman, not given to leaving anything to chance. As she pushed away the half-eaten salad across the table from the worshipful Thomas, she told herself that she was as prepared as it was possible to be. In her mind ranged whole shelvesful of books, annotated and bookmarked, and as she set aside her luncheon fork she roamed through the shelves of her acquired knowledge, quizzing herself. Where are the economic books? Here. And the books on costume and material culture? One shelf over, on the left.
A shadow of doubt crossed her face. But what if she was not prepared enough? The first wave of nausea contorted her stomach, and her face grew paler. Every year, it happened to someone. For years she had heard the whispers about students who had cracked, run sobbing from the examination room, their academic careers over before they had even begun. There were really only two ways that this could go. Her performance today could, in theory, raise her significantly in departmental regard. Today, if she handled herself correctly, she would be one step closer to becoming a professor.
Or she would look in the shelves in her mind and find them empty. All the history books would be gone, replaced only with a lone binder full of the plots of late seventies television programs and Pearl Jam lyrics. She would open her mouth, and nothing would come out. And then she would pack her bags to go home. Now, four hours after her lunch with Thomas, she sat on one side of a polished mahogany conference table in a dark, intimate corner of the Harvard University history building, having already endured three solid hours of questioning from a panel of four professors. She was tired, but with the heightened awareness of adrenaline. Connie recalled feeling the same strange blending of exhaustion and intellectual intensity when she pulled an all-nighter to polish off the last chapter of her senior thesis in college. All her sensations felt ratcheted up, intrusive and distracting – the scratch of the masking tape with which she had provisionally hemmed her wool skirt, the gummy taste in her mouth of sugared coffee. Her attention took in all of these details, and then set them aside. Only the fear remained, unwilling to be put away. She settled her eyes on Chilton, waiting.
The modest room in which she sat featured little more than the pitted conference table and chairs facing a blackboard stained pale gray with the ghostly scrawls of decades of chalk. Behind her hung a forgotten portrait of a white-whiskered old man, blackened by time and inattention. At the end of the room a grimy window stood shuttered against the late afternoon sunlight. Motes of dust hung almost motionless in the lone sunbeam that lighted the room, illuminating the committee's faces from nose to chin. Outside she heard young voices, undergraduates, hail each other and disappear, laughing.
"Miss Goodwin," Chilton said, "we have one final question for you this afternoon." Her advisor leaned into the empty center of the table, sunlight moving over his silver hair, stirring the dust into a glittering corona around his head. On the table before him, his fingers sat knotted as carefully as the club tie at his throat. "Would you please provide the committee with a succinct and considered history of witchcraft in North America?"
The historian of American colonial life, as Connie was, must be able to illustrate long-dead social, religious, and economic systems down to the slightest detail. In preparation for this exam, she had memorized, among other things, methods for preparing salt pork, the fertilizer uses of bat guano, and the trade relationship between molasses and rum. Her roommate, Liz Dowers, a tall, bespectacled student of Medieval Latin, blond and slender, one evening had come upon her studying the Bible verses that commonly appeared in eighteenth-century needlepoint samplers. We have finally specialized beyond our ability to understand each other, Liz had remarked, shaking her head.
For a last question, Connie knew Chilton had really given her a gift. Some of the earlier ones were considerably more arcane, even beyond what she had been led to expect. Describe the production, if she would, of the different major exports of the British colonies in the 1840s, from the Caribbean to Ireland. Did she think that history was more a story of great men acting in extraordinary circumstances, or of large populations of people constrained by economic systems? What role, would she say, did codfish play in the growth of New England trade and society? As her gaze roamed around the conference table to each professor's face in turn, she saw mirrored in their watching eyes the special area of expertise in which each had made his or her name.
Connie's advisor, Professor Manning Chilton, looked at her across the table, a small smile flickering at the edge of his mouth. His face, framed with a fringe of brushed cotton hair, was seamed at the forehead, creased by folds from the corners of his nose to his jaw, which the low sunlight in the conference room cast in deep shadow. He carried himself with the easy assurance of the vanishing breed of academic who has spent his entire career under Harvard's crimson umbrella, and whose specialization in the history of science in the colonial period was fueled by a childhood spent shooed away from the drawing room of a stately Back Bay townhouse. He bore the distinguished smell of old leather and pipe tobacco, masculine but not yet grandfatherly.
Chilton was flanked around the conference table by three other respected American historians. To his left perched Professor Larry Smith, a tight-lipped, tweedy junior faculty economist, who asked knotty questions designed to indicate to the senior professors his authority and expertise. Connie glowered at him; twice already in the exam he had asked questions probing where he knew her knowledge was scanty. She supposed that that was his job, but he was the only committee member likely to recall his own qualifying exams. Perhaps she had been naïve to expect solidarity from him; oftentimes professors of his rank were the hardest on grad students, as if to make up for the indignities they felt themselves to have suffered. He smiled back at her primly.
To Chilton's right, her chin on one jeweled hand, sat Professor Janine Silva, a blowsy, recently-tenured gender studies specialist who favored topics in feminist theory. Her hair was wilder and wavier today than usual, with a burgundy sheen that was patently false. Connie enjoyed Janine's willful denial of the Harvard aesthetic; long floral scarves were her trademark. One of Janine's favorite rants concerned Harvard's relative hostility to women academics; her interest in Connie's career sometimes bordered on the motherly, and as a result Connie consciously had to work to control the pseudo-parental transference that many students develop towards their mentors. While Chilton held more power over her career, Connie dreaded disappointing Janine the most. As if sensing this momentary flicker of anxiety, Janine sent Connie a thumbs-up, partly concealed behind one of her arms.
Finally, to Janine's right hunched Professor Harold Beaumont, Civil War historian and staunch conservative, known for his occasional grumpy forays onto the editorial page of the New York Times. Connie had never worked closely with him, and had only placed him on her committee because she suspected that he would have very little personally invested in her performance. Between Janine and Chilton she thought she had enough expectations to manage. As these thoughts traveled through her mind, she felt Beaumont's dark eyes burning a tight round hole in the shoulder of her sweater.
Connie gazed down at the surface of the table and traced the outline of the initials that had been carved there, darkened by decades of waxy polish. She roamed through the file cabinets in her brain, looking for the answer that they wanted. Where was it? She knew it was there somewhere. Was it under "W," for "Witchcraft?" No. Or was it listed under "G," for "Gender Issues?" She opened each mental drawer in turn, pulling out index cards by the handful, shuffling through them, and then tossing them aside. The bubble of nausea rose again in her throat. The card was gone. She could not find it. Those whispered stories about students failing, they were going to be about her. She had been given the simplest question possible, and she could not produce an answer.
She was going to fail.
A haze of panic began to cloud her vision, and Connie fought to keep her breath steady. The facts were there, she must just focus enough to see them. Facts would never abandon her. She repeated the word to herself – facts. But wait – she had not looked under "F," for "Folk Religion, Colonial Era." She pulled the mental drawer open, and there it was! The haze cleared. Connie straightened herself against the hard chair, and smiled.
"Of course," Connie began, shoving her anxiety aside. "The temptation is to begin a discussion of witchcraft in New England with the Salem panic of 1692, in which nineteen townspeople were executed by hanging. But the careful historian will recognize that panic as an anomaly, and will instead want to consider the relatively mainstream position of witchcraft in colonial society at the beginning of the seventeenth century." Connie watched the four faces nodding around the table, planning the structure of her answer according to their responses.
"Most cases of witchcraft occurred sporadically," she continued. "The average witch was a middle-aged woman who was isolated in the community, either economically or through lack of family, and so was lacking in social and political power. Interestingly, research into the kinds of maleficium," her tongue tangled on the Latin word, sending it out with one or two extra syllables, and she cursed inwardly for giving in to pretension, "which witches were usually accused of reveals how narrow the colonial world really was for average people. Whereas the modern person might assume that someone who could control nature, or stop time, or tell the future, would naturally use those powers for large scale, dramatic change, colonial witches were usually blamed for more mundane catastrophes, like making cows sick, or milk go sour, or for the loss of personal property. This microcosmic sphere of influence makes more sense in the context of early colonial religion, in which individuals were held to be completely powerless in the face of God's omnipotence." Connie paused for breath. She yearned to stretch, but restrained herself. Not yet. "Further," she continued, "the Puritans held that nothing could reliably indicate whether or not one's soul was saved— doing good works wouldn't cut it. So negative occurrences, like a serious illness or economic reversal, were often interpreted as signs of God's disapproval. For most people, it was preferable to blame witchcraft, an explanation out of one's own control, and embodied in a woman on the margins of society, than to consider the possibility of one's own spiritual risk. In effect, witchcraft played an important role in the New England colonies— as both an explanation for things not yet elucidated by science, and as a scapegoat."
"And the Salem panic?" prodded Professor Silva.
"The Salem witch trials have been explained in numerous ways," Connie said. "Some historians have argued that the trials were caused by tension between competing religious populations in Salem, the more urban port city on the one hand and the rural farm region on the other. Some have pointed to longstanding envy between family groups, with particular attention paid to the monetary demands made by an unpopular minister, Reverend Samuel Parris. And some historians have even claimed that the possessed girls were hallucinating after having eaten moldy bread, which can cause effects similar to LSD. But I see it as the last gasp of Calvinist religiosity. By the early eighteenth century, Salem had moved from being a predominantly religious community to being more diverse, more dependent on shipbuilding, fishing, and trade. The Protestant zealots who had originally settled the region were being supplanted by recent immigrants from England, who were more interested in the business opportunities in the new colonies than in religion. I think that the trials were a symptom of this dynamic shift. They were also the last major outbreak of witchcraft hysteria in all of North America. In effect, the Salem panic signaled the end of an era that had had its roots in the Middle Ages."
"A very insightful analysis," commented Professor Chilton, still in his bemused, bantering tone. "But haven't you overlooked one other significant interpretation?"
Connie smiled at him, the nervous grimace of an animal fending off an attacker. "I am not sure, Professor Chilton," she answered. He was toying with her now. Connie silently begged for time to accelerate past Chilton's teasing, to catapult her instantly to Abner's Pub, where Liz and Thomas would be waiting, and where she could finally stop talking for the day. When she was tired, Connie's words sometimes ran together, tumbling out in an order not fully under her control. As she watched Chilton's crafty smile she worried that she was reaching that level of fatigue. Her stupid blunder over maleficium was a hint. If only he would just let her pass….
Chilton leaned forward. "Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?" he asked. He arched his eyebrows at her, fingers pointed in a small temple on the tabletop.
She watched him for a moment. A rush of irritation, even anger, sped through her. What a preposterous question! Certainly, the participants in colonial witch trials believed that witches were real. But no contemporary scholars had ever entertained that possibility. Connie could not understand why Chilton would tease her like this. Was this just his way of reinforcing how lowly she ranked in the hierarchy of academia? No matter how ludicrous it was, she had to answer because it was Chilton doing the asking. Clearly he was too far away from his own graduate student experience to remember how dreadful this exam is. If he could remember, he would never joke with her today.
She cleared her throat, tamping down her aggravation. Connie did not yet rank high enough in the scholarly universe to be permitted to voice her exasperation. She read sympathy and commiseration in Janine's narrowed eyes, but also registered her almost imperceptible nod that Connie should continue. Jump through the hoop, the nod said. You and I both know that's what it is, but you have to do it anyway.
"Well, Professor Chilton," she began. "None of the recent secondary source literature that I have read considered that to be a real possibility. The only exception that I can think of is Cotton Mather. In 1705 he wrote a famous defense of the judgments and executions at Salem, firmly believing that the courts had acted rightly to rid the town of actual, practicing witches. This was about the time that one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, published a public apology for his part in the trials. Of course, Cotton Mather, a renowned theologian, had himself officiated at the trials. Against the wishes of his equally famous theologian father, Increase Mather, I might add, who publicly condemned the Salem trials as being based on unreliable evidence. So Cotton Mather may have argued that the witchcraft at Salem was real, and that the killing of nineteen people was completely justified, but he had rather a lot invested in not being wrong. Sir."
As Connie concluded her treatise she observed Chilton grinning mischievously at her across the table. In that moment she knew that the exam was over. Through the hoop she had gone, and now it was behind her. Of course she would have to go outside to await their official verdict. But at least she had come up with an answer. Now there was nothing more that she could do. She felt helpless, exhausted. What little color remained in her face ebbed, her lips fading to white.
The four professors exchanged looks in a rapid volley around their side of the table before turning their attention back to Connie.
"Very well," said Professor Chilton. "If you would just step outside for a moment, please, Miss Goodwin, we will discuss your performance. Don't go far."
Withdrawing from the examination room, Connie moved through the history building shadows, her footfalls echoing off the marble floor. She settled onto an institutional lavender sofa in the central reception area, enjoying the blissful sound of quiet. She let herself sink into the cushions, twiddling the tail end of her braid under her nose like a mustache.
From inside the conference room several doors away, she heard murmured comments, too muffled for her to distinguish who was saying what. She clicked her thumbnails together, waiting.
The early evening sun slanted across the floor, splashing warmth onto her lap. Across the room she glimpsed a flash of movement as a tiny mouse disappeared into the darkness behind a drowsy potted plant. Connie smiled wanly, thinking about the unseen generations of warm life living somewhere in the history department walls, worried about nothing more momentous than leftover water crackers and careless feet. She could almost envy a life that simple and straightforward. Silence descended over the waiting area, and Connie heard only her shallow breath.
At length she heard the door open.
"Connie? We are ready for you." It was Professor Silva. Connie sat up. For a split second she faced the certainty that the exam had gone horribly, she had failed, she would have to leave school. But then Connie saw Janine's kind face, framed with ruddy tangles of hair, break into a delighted grin. She threaded an arm around Connie's waist and whispered, "We're celebrating at Abner's after this!" And she knew that it was really about to be over.
Connie resumed her seat in the examination room. The single sunbeam was lower now, barely gracing the four pairs of folded hands that now ringed the table.
She arranged her features into a close approximation of professional coolness and detachment. No one likes a woman academic who is emotional, she reminded herself.
"After much discussion and debate," began Professor Chilton, face serious, "we would like to congratulate you on the strongest doctoral qualifying examination that we have seen in recent memory. Your responses were complete, thorough, and articulate, and we feel that you are eminently qualified to be advanced to candidacy for the PhD. You are more than ready to write your dissertation."
He paused for a beat, while Connie processed what he had just said, the verdict working its way down through all her layers of worry.
All at once she felt the breath rush out of her in an excited hiss, and she clenched her fingers around the chair seat in an effort to channel her palpable glee into something safe, something that would not give her away. "Really?" she said aloud, looking around the table before she could stop herself.
"Of course!" piped Professor Silva, interrupting Professor Smith, who had started to say "Really excellent work, Connie."
"Most competent," concurred Professor Beaumont, and Connie smiled privately to herself. Thomas would doubt he had even said that much. Already Connie's mind was skipping ahead to the evening, when her thesis student would interrogate her about the questions that each of the professors had asked. As the committee continued to praise her performance, Connie felt a sweet mixture of relief and fatigue rush through her arms and legs. The voices of her mentors muffled and drifted farther away as a fog of sleepiness rolled across her mind. She was about to crash. She found herself struggling to get to her feet, to spirit herself away to the safety of her friends.
"Well," she said, standing, "I can't thank you all enough. Really. This is a great way to end the semester." They all stood with her, each shaking her hand in turn and gathering up their things to leave. She nodded automatic thanks and her hands began to scrabble for her coat. Professors Smith and Beaumont scuttled out together.
Professor Silva hoisted her satchel over her head. "C'mon, kiddo," she said, knocking Connie on the shoulder. "You need a drink."
Connie laughed, doubting that she would be able to withstand more than one of Abner's notorious Old Fashioneds. "I should call Thomas and Liz. They demanded an immediate report," she said. "I'll meet you there?"
Professor Silva – Janine, now, for she insisted that her graduate students call her by her first name once they had advanced to candidacy – nodded appreciatively. "I'll bet they did," she said. "Manning, we'll talk next week." Then with a wave she was gone, the heavy paneled door closing in her wake.
Connie began to wind her scarf around her neck.
"Connie, wait a moment," said Chilton. It was more a command than a suggestion, Connie noticed with some surprise. She stopped, lowering herself back to the table.
Chilton dropped into the armchair across from Connie, beaming at her. He did not speak. Connie, unsure what he was up to, hazarded a glance as far as the polished leather elbow patch that rested in the last shard of sunlight on the table.
"I have to say that this was an incredible performance, even for you," began Chilton. As always Connie was momentarily distracted by Chilton's clipped Brahmin accent, in which the "r" wanders in and out of words unpredictably. Pehfohmance. It was an accent that one barely heard anymore, almost unrelated to the Boston accent that caricatured on TV. Bahston versus Behstun. Chilton himself often struck her as a sort of relic, a scarab beetle preserved in amber, not knowing that it is frozen and that time has left it behind.
"Thank you, Professor Chilton," she said.
"I knew when we admitted you to this program that you would excel. Your undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke was exemplary of course. Your coursework and teaching have both been well remarked upon." Rehmahked thought Connie, then immediately chastised herself. Pay attention! This is important!
He paused, gazing at her, index fingers pressed over his lips. "I wonder if you have started putting any thought to your dissertation topic," he said. She hesitated, caught off guard. Of course she had expected to bring him a proposal shortly after her exam, assuming she passed, but she had counted on having weeks ahead of her to think things over. However, his attention signaled to Connie that her performance had guaranteed her new status within the department. Connie's ears buzzed, like antennae that have picked up a vital piece of information written in a code that has been only half-transcribed.
Academia, in many respects, forms the last bastion of medieval apprenticeship. She and Liz had discussed this idea before. The master takes the student in, educates her in his craft, shares with her the esoteric secrets of his field. The apprentice is a kind of initiate, admitted by gradual degrees into ever higher levels of mysticism. Not that most academic subjects were very mystical anymore, of course. But, by extension, the apprentice's skill reflects on the master's own ability. Connie realized that Chilton now viewed her as a particular asset to him, and that this new level of regard came with heavier responsibility. Chilton had plans for her.
"I have a few ideas percolating of course," she began, "but nothing set in stone. Did you have something in mind?"
He regarded her for a moment, and she could see something indistinct, almost serpentine, glimmering behind his careful, veiled eyes. Then just as suddenly the glimmer disappeared, replaced with the bemused detachment which he habitually wore in place of an expression. He sat back in his chair, propping the top of a bony knee on the edge of the table, and waved one wrinkled hand dismissively. "Nothing as such. Only I urge you to look vigorously for new source bases. We need to think strategically about your career, my girl, and we can't do that if you are just revisiting the same old archives. A really marvelous, newly uncovered primary source can make you in this field, Connie," he said, looking sharply at her. "New. New shall be your watchword."
Watchwuhd, thought Connie. If I don't get out of here this instant I am going to say something that will truly embarrass myself. Though why he would bother to tell her to look for new source bases she could not fully understand. Perhaps later he would tell her what exactly he had in mind. "I understand, Professor Chilton. I will give this some serious thought. Thank you."
Connie stood, easing her arms into her pea coat, pulling the scarf over her nose, and tucking her braid up under a knitted pompom hat. Chilton nodded appreciatively. "So you're off to celebrate then," he said, and Connie fixed him with a thin smile.
"Abner's," she confirmed, silently begging him not to come along.
"You deserve it. Enjoy yourself," he said. "We shall continue this discussion more concretely at our next meeting." He made no move to rise and follow her, instead watching as she assembled herself to re-enter the crisp spring world outside. As the door closed behind her, the last narrow stripe of sunlight vanished from the window, and the conference room went dark.
From THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE by Katherine Howe. Copyright 2009 Katherine Howe. To be published in June 2009. Available wherever books are sold. All rights reserved.