A crime lost to time. A secret buried deep. One book unlocks an unimaginable truth.
Salem, Massachusetts, 1681. Fear and suspicion lead a small town to unspeakable acts. Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1991. A young woman is about to discover that she is tied to Salem in ways she never imagined.
The story follows several sets of mothers and daughters: Connie and Grace, Grace and Sophia, Deliverance and Mercy, Mercy and Prudence. How are these mother/daughter relationships different? How are they the same? Did you identify with one set more than the others?
2. Many of the characters in the book, like Manning Chilton and Prudence Bartlett, are heavily constrained by their social class. How are characters in the novel constrained or defined by their social position? Do the twentieth-century characters have more freedom than the seventeenth and eighteenth century characters, or less?
3. Most of the main characters in Physick Book are women. How have women’s roles changed from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century? What about their obligations? Their opportunities?
4. 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?
5. How do some of the buildings, like Saltonstall Court, the Harvard Faculty Club, and the Milk Street house, function as de facto characters in the story?
6. Discuss the role of Arlo in the novel. Do you think Arlo exists? Can he exist without Connie? What does Arlo imply about relationships in general?
7. What role does religion play in Physick Book? Is Christianity contradictory or complementary to magic in this story? Is Wicca more like magic, more like Christianity, or is it something else entirely?
8. Do you think magic, as represented in this book, exists in the real world? If so, how do you think it manifests itself?
9. Some characters in Physick Book, like Connie, have their ambition rewarded, but others, like Manning Chilton, are thwarted. Is ambition a virtue, or a vice?
10. Deliverance has a chance to escape with her daughter the night before she is set to be put to death. Why does she make the choice that she makes?
11. Near the end of the story, we learn that having the talent for witchcraft comes at a pretty steep price. Would you like to be a witch, as represented in Physick Book? Why or why not?
12. Physick Book is the latest entry in a long bibliography of writing about witchcraft at Salem. Why do you think we are still so enthralled by this moment in history? What does Salem have to teach us about our culture today?
13. Historians differ on what precisely caused the Salem witch panic to grow so disproportionately relative to other colonial-era witch trials. Some blame infighting between a rural town and its bustling seaport; some point to the violence of the Indian wars along the Maine frontier; some even blame the hallucinatory effects of moldy rye. What do you think was the ultimate cause of the Salem panic?