The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is compelling and emotional. I read it in two long sittings, unwilling to put it down. Based on a true historical event in Strasbourg in 1518 when, one hot summer, one woman started to dance and didn’t stop. Others followed. Set at a time of extreme heat, hunger, intense religious belief and superstition, The Dance Tree takes the historical event and tells the story of a group of women and their secrets.
Lisbet, heavily pregnant with her thirteenth child, having lost the previous twelve, lives on the family farm with husband Henne and mother-in-law Sophey. They scratch a living from their bees, selling honey and beeswax. They await the arrival of the baby, and of Henne’s sister Agnethe returning from seven years of punishment at a nunnery. Many things are unspoken. Lisbet, feeling secrets are kept from her, finds support with her best friend Ida. But always she feels as if the Wilers blame her for bringing bad luck to the farm, bad luck because Lisbet was born on the day of a comet, a comet which bought bad luck and starvation to the land.
So many things are unspoken. What happened before Lisbet married Henne and joined the Wiler family. What shame did Nethe commit to deserve her banishment and, now she is returned, why is there such hatred between her and Ida. Lisbet, feeling estranged from her husband and mother-in-law, struggles to make sense of what is happening. What is the family hiding from her, and why. The family has so many secrets, including the secrets Lisbet is hiding about her mother’s death.
The power balance at the Wiler house changes as the three women are left alone. Henne travels to Heidelberg to give evidence in court that their bees are free creatures in nature and are not wilfully stealing nectar from the wildflowers at the monastery. Meanwhile in town women begin dancing. First one, trance-like, hearing music that those watching cannot hear. More join in, at first a spectacle for the town’s inhabitants. But then, as more people join in, fear begins to circulate. Are they ill, are they mad. And how will the church control the hysteria.
Into the Wiler home come two lodgers, two musicians paid by the church to play music to drive the devil from the dancing women. And so the power balance shifts again in the Wiler household, especially as one of the men is a Turk, an infidel. The power of religious belief and superstition is overwhelming. Heat, poverty, hunger all increase the pressure to conform. Judgement against those who do not fit in or whose behaviour is judged sinful or simply different is uncompromising. Those wielding the power, the Twenty One, are strong men filled with pomposity and arrogance. They are quick to judge and will not hear evidence or allow people to make witness. Women’s voices are not heard.
Lisbet’s place of sanctuary is a linden tree, hidden deep in the forest in an impenetrable tangle of bushes. There she can be herself, remember her mother and grieve for her lost babies. Her mother had a tree like this near Lisbet’s childhood home, it was called a dance tree. When Lisbet visits her tree she finds peace in its solitude. At every visit she leaves a small offering, a pebble, a feather, a flower. She feels safe there but in truth there is safety nowhere. When the Twenty One sees the dancing women, decisions about what to do – to punish the women or care for them – are made individually according to the woman’s standing and position in society, obedient or sinner.
Like Hargrave’s previous novel The Mercies, this is a powerful mesmerising novel tight with tension, betrayal and threat leavened by snatches of love and togetherness. Excellent.
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Click the title to read my review of THE MERCIES, also by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
If you like this, try:-
‘Orphans of the Carnival’ by Carol Birch
‘The Wicked Cometh’ by Laura Carlin
‘Gone are the Leaves’ by Anne Donovan
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THE DANCE TREE by Kiran Millwood Hargrave #bookreview https://wp.me/p2ZHJe-5Tk via @SandraDanby
COMING SOON… THE NEXT BOOK I REVIEW WILL BE:-