Conversion by Katherine Howe
(Available July 1, 2014)
It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
I read Conversion with three black cats on my lap, feeling very witchy (even though cats don't really have anything to do with witches traditionally), reluctant to put it down for more than five minutes at a time. I was completely and totally absorbed in Howe's book. What first piqued my interest was the Mystery Illness, and Howe delivered all the tension, unease, and fear you'd expect to find in a book about an epidemic. But Howe also incorporated Ann Putnam's account of the events at Salem in 1692, with the same elements. Colleen's place in the middle of an epidemic and Ann Putnam's place of power in the Salem Witch Trials paralleled each other in a lot of ways, so that even when they weren't directly related to each other, they were connected. There was a great deal of subtlety in Conversion, from the implied causes of the outbreak and the way the girls' relationships progressed to the way Howe incorporated a piece of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. (I grinned like an idiot when Connie showed up. No shame).
Even though the Salem Witch Trials happened over 300 years ago and a mystery illness like the one that befalls St. Joan's seems too strange to be true, Howe writes them realistically. I can't begin to imagine the hours of research it must have taken to get Ann's story down, or to follow the progression of the Le Roy Mystery Illness of 2012 (which Colleen's story is based off of). My hat is off to Howe for that. She even managed to create a fairly accurate portrait of high school, which is damn near impossible. To be fair, not every little detail was spot-on realistic - Howe definitely added some flair to Colleen's story to make it even creepier - but even the more outlandish bits felt plausible.
The atmosphere of Conversion practically earns a star all on its own. I got shivers up my spine reading it. Colleen's story freaked me out because an unknown "illness" was infecting a bunch of people with no known cause and that's just a bit scary. Ann's story was creepy more because there wasn't any illness, just a whole load of lies that led to hysteria and paranoia and 20 deaths. A lot of stories about the Salem Witch Trials are told from the point of view of an outsider or an accused woman; it was interesting and a little freaky to hear Ann Putnam's version of events. I was hoping Conversion would be a little eerie, and it was.
I loved the diversity of the characters in Conversion, from their personalities to their backgrounds. Both the modern and historical casts were developed (some more than others, of course) and helped to drive the story. A few times their interactions became a bit cheesy, but to be honest high school is pretty cheesy, and I'm no holding it against anyone.
Definitely, definitely read Conversion if you like creepy-but-not-scary books or have any interest in either the Salem Witch Trials or the Le Roy Mystery Illness. It would also make a great book club read; there's plenty of things to discuss. Conversion was a very well put-together book, and it's made me a fan of Katherine Howe's. I want to see what else she can do.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers the story of Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
This book was not "spooky" or "bedeviling." It was, however, an awesome piece of historical fiction. The interludes featuring Deliverance and her ancestors were the most interesting parts of the story. Unfortunately, Connie's end of the story didn't quite keep up. It wasn't boring so much as drawn out. Towards the end of the book, Connie's story was just as interesting as Deliverance's, although the two were very different. The historic parts of the book were fascinating because of the light they shed on the Salem Witch Trials and what it was like for the accused women. Connie's story was more academic, but the love story was sweet.
The biggest reason Connie's story didn't interest me as much as Deliverance's is the book's extremely long exposition. Two thirds of the book, at least, are mainly exposition, detailing Connie's search for the physick book. It was interesting, peppered with historical facts with a good amount of research behind them. But a description of a scholarly hunt for a historical book should not take up over 200 pages. Again, however, once Connie's story picked up, it was really very good. It just took a while to get there.
I have a couple other little problems with The Physick Book, but nothing else major. Howe uses the suspense technique of keeping her character from realizing something excruciatingly obvious, which annoys me to no end. And I found some of her generalizations about New Englanders, "Yankees," a bit untrue. But I must admit that Howe is a talented writer, even if she draws her story out a bit too long.
Despite being a realistic, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction, I can only give this book three stars. After all, the actual historical fiction chapters make up less than a third of the book, and their contemporary counterparts don't quite match them in quality. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the Salem Witch Trials or America's occult history, because Howe does a very good job with that material. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a book about magic, spells, and Harry Potter-like things.
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