Witch Historian: Spotlight on Katherine Howe

It’s been a decade since Katherine Howe spent time with Connie Goodwin, the heroine of her New York Times–bestselling debut historical novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. In The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, her third adult historical novel, Howe revisits Goodwin, a Harvard grad student turned professor, as she is pulled into a mystery involving the Salem witch trials and her own family tree.

As it happens, Connie’s life has paralleled her author’s. Howe was in graduate school when she wrote The Physick Book; now, both she and her character are enmeshed in their careers and family lives. “Connie is sort of like my best and worst self,” Howe says. “She has secret skills I do not possess, but she’s more preoccupied with her work, more in denial about her life.”

In the first book, Connie was on the cusp of adulthood, and in Daughters, Howe says, she’s figuring out who she is in relation to the grown-up world, something many of us go through. “Our first task is to know who we are,” she says. “And our next task is to understand what we are to others.”

As Connie, an expert in early American history and witchcraft, explores what she is to others, she’s pulled into a race to protect her partner. While keeping secret her identity as a direct descendant of a woman tried in the Salem witch trials, Connie must uncover the mysteries of a deadly curse that’s more than a century old.

While readers new to Howe will be hooked afresh by this drama, fans of The Physick Book will find answers to some lingering questions. Daughters not only revisits other members of the Dane family but also explains what the key found in the Bible in The Physick Book unlocks. But readers with only a passing interest in witchcraft and magic will also find something in Daughters. Howe, who, like her protagonist, is a scholar of early American history, says she hopes the book allows readers to learn about the past and “bring it to life,” as all great historical fiction should.

Howe is also a descendant of “witches” herself. A distant relation of Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe, both tried at Salem, Howe says that, as a teenager, she thought the connection was “the most metal thing ever.” As she grew older, though, the connection became a driving force in her studies. When she moved to Marblehead, Mass., which is next to Salem, in 2005, she began thinking about witches and their place in America’s story in “a more structured, historical way.”

The Physick Book, Howe says, resulted from that thinking. “There had never been a story that took seriously the colonial belief in witchcraft,” she says. “I couldn’t think of a magical realist approach to the Salem witch trials. That’s where the story in The Physick Book came from.”

And, in a way, the stories both novels tell—about our own history—feel more pressing than ever. The trials, Howe says, continue to fascinate, because they force us “to reckon with how fragile American ideals really are. We want to believe that we are a tolerant society, that we accept differences in religion or outlook, that we care for people who are poor or mentally ill. But here is an instance in which 19 people were put to death by the state for a crime that would essentially be imaginary a decade later. The mind balks that such a clear injustice could be carried out under the aegis of authority and legal precedent.”

Win an ARC of ‘The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs’ by Katherine Howe. Enter here.

A version of this article appeared in the 01/14/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Witch Historian: Spotlight on Katherine Howe

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