The Dance Tree – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

It’s Strasbourg. 1518. A woman begins to dance. The Dancing Plague has begun, and will last throughout the summer. 

We know only a little about this, as not much in the way of records has survived and the main sources we have are not contemporary. Before this date, there are very scant rumours of other dancing plagues, with even less information. Of course, the where and the when, and who rules the roost, get to decide what happened, and given that what we know suggests most of the dancers were female, well…

But that’s at least three different historical treatises in one, so I’m just gonna keep going before I get (more) distracted!

I live for weird things like this so I jumped on this with much excitement. Dancing plague, lesbians, family secrets, what’s not to love?! To the book, then!

Lisbet is married to Henne. Once he wasn’t a prick to her, but she had a few miscarriages and then he only touched her to do his “duty” – and that with his eyes closed. But hey, she’s pregnant again, so he’s back to ignoring her except when he can’t avoid having to acknowledge she exists.

His mother, once as welcoming as her nature allowed, started to hate Lisbet after she began losing babies. That hasn’t changed, although Lisbet is now 7 months along and going well this time.

Poor Lisbet is nothing but a baby making wife appliance to both of them. She just needs to be able to take one to term, and make it a boy! After that, aside from being a wet nurse, they mostly won’t need her.

Then there’s Nethe. Lisbet’s sister-in-law. She’s returning home after seven years doing some mysterious penance in a nunnery a day’s ride away up the mountain. Anyone want to guess what the “penance” is for? Yeah, no prizes for that.

Finally, we have Ivy. Lisbet’s best friend, since she married Henne, but former friend of Nethe. Not that she’ll talk about her. She seems to get quite jumpy about it, actually…checks above paragraph again.

And it is here, amidst cruelty, religious fanaticism, and starvation, that we enter our tale.

I particularly enjoyed Hargrave’s weaving in of the stories of some of the dancers, every few chapters. It would have been easy for the setting to never fully come to life, but this keeps it fresh.

The book takes place during the time of a very particular combination of religious fervence, poverty, & years of bad harvests, freezing winters, and hostile summers. Lisbet has internalised herself as cursed since birth, and women are dancing until their feet bleed and they fall down, sometimes dead.

It’s a book which offers the sweetness of honey right beside the bitterness of vinegar. Every good means bad is coming. Yet an ever-present kernel of hope remains.

I could say the power-hungry fanatics–Ida’s husband for example–are a caricature, but actually it seems about right for that moment in time. They were often caricatures, they just didn’t realise it and everyone else was too afraid to say. Which is also familiar from the current time, oh how we do go in circles.

The Dance Tree is full of the fear and hope, the violence and helplessness, not just of that time, but of this. And as Hargrave points out in the afterword– despite how far we’ve come in so many ways, in others we haven’t really progressed at all.

It’s a great book. The story drives forward, always hurtling towards what I felt would have to be some darker end, but the path it takes is constantly twisting and turning. I really enjoyed reading!
The Dance Tree was released on 12th May 2022. Get here on Amazon US or UK, or from your favourite bookstore or library.


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