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Be still my beating heart, the preservationist doth approach

February 28, 2011

Marblehead Harbor from the old burial ground (read the book to discover Marblehead's plot significance), Photo by me

Hunky love interests in novels tend to be rich guys, or rich guys who hide their wealth — only revealing at the end that they have a trust fund in their wallet (so that we don’t suspect that the heroine loves him only for his money).

How refreshing then to read a novel with a historian as a protagonist and a hunky love interest who’s a preservationist (cuz we all know that preservationists are not rich, though I suppose one might be attached to a trust fund).

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane won’t be winning the National Book Award anytime soon, but it’s diverting enough to merit a place on a summer beach reading list.  The blurbs on the front of the paperback read “Spooky” from People, “Bedeviling” from the New York Daily News and notes the book made USA Today‘s” Top Ten Books of 2009″ list (USA Today‘s endorsement seems proof it’s a book best for the beach).

I’d say that “spooky” is overstating the case.  Is it because I’m also somewhat of a historian that I knew what was going to happen before it did, or is it simply the skill level of this writer’s debut effort?

Shifting between past and present, between Salem and Cambridge the book revisits the magic of the 17th century witches that capture our imagination to this day.  Grad student Connie Goodwin is pursuing her doctorate at Harvard.  Entering a Salem church to consult its archive, she calls out “hello” and then, as if descending from the heavens….

Connie heard more rustlings, followed by a shrill whine like a fishing reel being cast, and a dark shape thunked down about three feet in front of her, right in the center aisle of the church.  She stepped back in surprise.  Presently the shape unfolded into the form of a rangy young man, dressed in paint-dappled overalls, with a tool belt slung around his slim hips.  He unhooked his rappelling harness from the ropes that Connie now perceived to be hanging from a scaffold near the ceiling, and strode forward to take her hand.

No.  It’s not Spiderman.

He “grins crookedly at her surprise” — she plays with her hair to indicate nervous excitement and that makes him smile.  He explains the work he’s doing.  He’s a steeplejack.  “I worked for awhile at the Society for the Advancement of New England Antiquarianism.”

“They have an awesome preservation program,” Connie interjected, recognizing the name.  “Some of those properties would just be knocked down if it weren’t for them.”

“That’s true,” Sam agreed.  “They do great things.  But I hated sitting at a desk all day.  I mean, I went into preservation so that I could touch cool old stuff that no one else is allowed to.  So” — he gestured to his tool belt — “I moved into restoration work.  New England is just about the only place with enough antique steeples to go around.”

They visit archives together, there are fireworks — no, really, I mean actual fireworks.  And so it goes.  There’s a sort of mystery.  There’s a bad guy.  There are mystical doings.  There are witches — or are there?

Like I said, it was a diverting enough read for a weekend spent in bed with a cold.


I take great issue with this discussion suggestion from the book club guide in the back of the book:

Connie is a historian who likes to interpret the past in light of the present.  Sam, however, is a preservationist:  He likes to keep the past intact, at the expense of the present.  Are you more of a historian or a preservationist?  Do you see a difference between Connie’s and Sam’s feelings about the past?

Now, hold your horses there you Hyperion publicist, you!  I take objection to that characterization!  Preservationists holding on to the past at the expense of the present?  Do you have an ax to grind?  Did someone not let you tear out your old windows in a historic district or something?

Preservation is not about losing the present or the future — it’s about using these touchstones from the past to enrich our present and future.  Connie goes digging in archives to look at papers no one has seen for decades.  Sam is up on that steeple re-gilding it so that it continues to shine every day as a community beacon and neighborhood landmark.  How is that costing the present anything?

Go on.  Discuss.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Reagan Ruedig permalink
    February 28, 2011 3:04 pm

    Haha! I laughed out loud reading some of the passages you quoted here. I like the idea of romanticizing the preservationist. I also like to “touch cool old stuff.” But yes, obviously the publicist doesn’t know the whole definition of being a preservationist. Or maybe he/she knows one with poor standards and motives. Unfortunately, this is the general stereotype of the preservationist, one that we need to improve upon! Or maybe the publicist is just taking a simplistic view for the sake of creating a topic of conversation. Oh well. Doesn’t sound like too many people will be influenced by the question anyway!

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