Today’s review is about THE DANCE TREE by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Set in 1518 Strasbourg, this book explores female identity and sense of self amidst religious fervor and what it means to be free.
Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Age Category: Adult
Publish Date: March 14, 2023
Print Length: 256
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In this gripping historical novel, the internationally bestselling author of The Mercies weaves a spellbinding tale of fear, transformation, courage, and love in sixteenth-century France.
Strasbourg, 1518. In the midst of a blisteringly hot summer, a lone woman begins to dance in the city square. She dances for days without pause or rest, and when hundreds of other women join her, the men running the city declare a state of emergency and hire musicians to play the Devil out of the mob. Outside the city, pregnant Lisbet lives with her husband and mother-in-law, tending the bees that are the family’s livelihood. Though Lisbet is removed from the frenzy of the dancing plague afflicting the city’s women, her own quiet life is upended by the arrival of her sister-in-law. Nethe has been away for seven years, serving a penance in the mountains for a crime no one will name.
It is a secret Lisbet is determined to uncover. As the city buckles under the beat of a thousand feet, Lisbet becomes caught in a dangerous web of deceit and clandestine passion. Like the women of Strasbourg, she too, is dancing to a dangerous tune. . . .
Set in an era of superstition, hysteria, and extraordinary change, and inspired by true events, The Dance Tree is an impassioned story of family secrets, forbidden love, and women pushed to the edge.
I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.
Set in early 16th century Strasbourg, THE DANCE TREE is a fever dream of a frenzied fervor for freedom. It’s a time when religion is an omnipresent influence on culture and behavior, whether for better or for worse. In this case, the city’s religious leaders exert the power of their influential position to satisfy their own agenda in the name of God. The continuing summer drought and heat wave only exacerbate their oppressiveness as resources become squeezed and the people grow more restless.
At the heart of THE DANCE TREE is personal freedom, particularly for the women in this story. Since the following is stated early, it’s not a spoiler to mention that Lisbet has lost a dozen babies. During a time when a woman’s worth was largely based on their ability to produce children, these devastating losses weigh heavily on Lisbet. When we meet her, she is far along into her current pregnancy and counting her blessings. Though cautiously hopeful, Lisbet finds unwanted thoughts sneak into her head. She feels no one sees her for herself, as something other than a vessel to carry children or clean the house.
These errant thoughts begin to come closer to the surface when her husband’s sister, Nethe, returns to the family. No one will tell Lisbet what Nethe served a penance for. This creates an environment that begins to breed tension and mistrust. These burgeoning sentiments are further stoked by the heat and the strange onset of women in trances dancing until they drop. The dancing hysteria begins to spread and the church, in an effort to appear in control, declares an emergency.
Though told mainly through Lisbet’s perspective, the author gives the reader clips of the background of some of the dancing women. We see what life events drove them to this state of mind. It all boils down to relinquishing control, whether it’s of oneself or bucking someone else’s hold. In many, if not all, instances, control and order mean power. And the patriarchy wield that power under the guise of religion and salvation. These women want the freedom to be their own person, to have autonomy over their worth, to love who they want to love, to worship as they wish.
I enjoyed how the author used a historical event (the dancing fervor) to portray feminism and freedom. They are always present, but rise and hide based on the times. The only aspect that gave me trouble was the writing style. At times I found the fever dream-like and abstract way of writing a little confusing. There were times I had to reread passages to make sure I understood what was happening. But, of course, that’s obviously a subjective experience.
THE DANCE TREE is an ode to past and future women who yearn for their freedom. It’s an exploration of the expression of feminism during an era when women had few rights. Moreover, it’s a search for identity and all forms of feminine love: maternal, sisterly, sapphic, platonic, and self. Women are a force of nature when they hold each other up.
Content warnings: pregnancy loss (brief mentions), misogyny, xenophobia, sexual content
Reading format: Kindle e-book