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The Dance Tree: A BBC Between the Covers book club pick

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In the hot summer heat there’s a ‘Dance Plague’ in Strasbourg, it begins with a woman dancing in wild abandon for days, nobody can stop her and she doesn’t take food or rest, it’s almost as if she is in a trance. Other women join her……then hundreds! The authorities will bring in musicians to stop this madness and the devil in the women. Many of the women die! It takes an age, but Lisbet is revived from her sleep, and she works as though she had practised for just this moment her whole life, a life that until now had been full of ruin and curses and blood and now is nothing but music and beauty and bees, her mother-in-law processing before her, anointing her path with smoke. She feels some of the power a priest must, giving each animal their place, clearing them of their panic, their confusion. Giving them peace. The unhomed bees gust and plume, making a column above the destroyed hives.’ Kiran Millwood Hargrave explains in her Author’s Note at the end of her novel that one of the prompts she felt for writing this work was her experiencing recurrent pregnancy loss during our recent Covid pandemic. For this she used a peculiar historical episode that took place in Strasbourg in the Summer o 1518 when a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the streets, for no clear reason, giving rise to many other people doing the same, alarming the political and religious authorities at the time. A frenzy ensued; the drive to dance spread lasting a few months during which several people died. Documents are scarce so even today it is difficult to explain why it happened and the extent of the mania. The story is ambitious in its scope, involving natural occurrence, possible war, prejudice, and more. As much as I loved the Mercies by this author, I just couldn’t connect with this story.

I was first intrigued by this book because I've always been slightly fascinated by The Dance Plague of 1518 - is that slightly morbid? probably - and so a story set then intrigued me. What Hargrave has done here has taken this slightly bizarre historical factoid and breathed life and humanity into it. 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. The story of her birth is the story of a comet. At the moment Gepa Bauer’s mother felt the first pain of her coming, her papa saw it, a burning star ripping the dark sky for three days while her mother laboured on all fours like a beast, her husband and sons sleeping in the barn because they were scared of her pain, of the blood, of the wise woman who came with sweet mallow and iron tongs. To the east, the comet found a farmer’s field and scorched it fully, furrowed so deep those who were there said it was like a tunnel to Hell carved in the soil. As it tore the ground, Gepa was born feet first and the agony broke her mother’s mind.’ This was a stunning, breathtaking book. I am struggling to even write this review because I'm not sure how to do it justice. It was heartbreaking and infuriating and hopeful and lovely. I cannot recommend it enough.Hargrave notes that incidents of choreomania were – if not common – recurrent in Medieval times, rationalised as religious mania, and what seems to me to be the nub of this novel is the fact that ‘[o]ften, the dancers were society’s most vulnerable, whether through class, age, race, or gender.’ Not only was I intrigued by the absolutely stunning book cover, I also adore historical fiction therefore I was incredibly excited when I received a copy of The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. 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. The entire book pulsates and hums with anxiety, fear, oppressive patriarchy, and loss as Lizbet and others seek any little morsel of joy to hold onto in the age of repression and control. Phenomenal book and I look forward to reading more from this author.

Reading this book,I learned so much that I never even heard of. There are many different theories to this day as to what started the dancing plaque in 1518 in Strasbourg ranging from tainted rye in the bread to curses to hot blood. I'm amazed that this even happened! The most common theory is that they were cursed by St. Vistus (The god of dancing) for whatever sin they committed. Read the Authors Notes to find out more and what other centuries the dancing plaque occurred in. The king rises from the remains of his hive, buzzing enormously. He sways, bumbles against Lisbet’s cheek. She feels the graze of his wing, light as broken cobwebs, and then he lifts higher and is encased inside his colony. The bees rise with him as though he is an anchor made air, as though their tethers are suddenly cut, and they follow him into the forest.’ I found my patience for sentimental historical fiction, even the kind that is well-written and not cheesy WWII romance crap, had disappeared. This was absolutely beautifully written. It often felt like a dreamscape, where the writing created far more ambiance than detail. The story involves Lisbet who is a pregnant beekeeper and who suffers many miscarriages, and many tragedies in her life. Her city of Strasbourg is marked by starvation and hardship. When one woman starts dancing in the city, followed by others and dramatic events, Lisbet starts questioning what is right and what is wrong.Lisbet irá questionar-se a medida que convive com a cunhada com o crime que poderá este acometer, principalmente quando sente-se segura em partilhar segredos com ela e entende que poderá a sociedade estar errada no que se pode considerar pecado.

The writing in this book is filled with descriptive and lyrical prose and I found it very captivating. It’s a story of female friendship, loss and forbidden love. It’s set in the year 1518 and based on a true story. I'm sad because I WANT to love KMH's novels. I think they have a ton of merit, and I can quite see why people DO love her stories, but they just never gel quite right with me. Sadly, the (admittedly beautiful) prose just isn't for me. The author in a note at the end of this book says ” It is difficult for contemporary readers to understand the absolute role of religion in medieval life, how fully it informed everything from medicine to punishment, tax to sex.” But I found this beautifully written, impactful novel to be a stunning presentation of that iron fisted influence during that time and place, in particular on women. It is brilliantly depicted through the strength and courage of three women held down by cultural and religious beliefs. In the face of punishment they defy the cruelty of men and the church (no difference really between the two here ) for the right to love, to be and show who they are. These women, Lisbet, Ida and Agnethe - marginalized, with no power or freedom, embody the strength and courage that women today will need as men try to control their health, their bodies, their choices. It’s eerily relevant and while historical fiction, it oddly felt dystopian. I was fascinated to learn of this historic event known as the Dancing Plague of 1518 and taken by the story of these women who in their own way dance to their own music. In an author’s note at the end of this version of the novel, Kiran Millwood Hargrave outlines the sphere of her interest: There is violence here: violence towards women, violence of hate; verbal abuse and emotional abuse. But the text is redemptive, and – I like to hope – not through a solely hetero-centric resolution. ‘The Mercies’ also suffered somewhat from the Bury Your Gays trope / Dead Lesbian Syndrome, where LGBT+ relationships are frustrated or denied fulfilment, either through death or permanent separation. However, Hargrave does conclude in her remarkably tender author’s note:I have struggled to work out how to write this review, which is why I'm posting it later than I had planned. I've spent weeks avoiding it, unable to word what I'm trying to say. Lisbeth has a tree, a tree that she calls the dancing tree, where she marks the death of her ten children. it will be the place where pivotal events in the book happen. A tree that marks lifes trials, but also happiness, solace and joy. The authors note adds to the actual historical events of the time and adds greatly to our understanding. A terrific book marking a time when women had no control over their own lives and had to suppress all their own wants and desires. Thanks to NetGalley, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and HarperVia for this ARC. The Dance Tree will be out in the US on March 14th, 2023 ** The dialogue, too, is full and resonant; Hargrave’s character portrayal is splendid in this respect. There are points when a character’s speech made me gasp aloud. Hargrave’s observational powers shine from the whole cast. There is not one extraneous character here. The relationship between Lisbet and her confidante Ida is beautifully written right from the start, tender and engaging. That between Lisbet and Agnethe, her sister-in-law, is perfectly enthralling; their pieces of dialogue together are some of the finest writing in the novel. Some of the dancing women themselves are given brief biographies that pepper the narrative between chapters, and this device serves effectively to seize tension and pull the reader through to the next scene, or – in some cases – to deepen our sympathy or empathy.

As the story unravels, I kept waiting to connect with the main character, but I couldn’t. There wasn’t enough of character development to help me connect with Lisbet. When I started losing interest in the story, I realized that the plot was weak as well. It seems as it’s more about some embellishments. The story keeps spinning, but I was missing character development and some strong thread to connect all those beautiful embellishments. Agnethe and the other side characters as also excellently sketched out, and all together Hargrave's writing portrays a vivid picture of the era and its people, with excellent use of imagery and language.It’s easy to draw lines from then to now in attitudes to the LGBT+ community, to immigrants, to class. We have come so far, and not nearly far enough. […] The world-at-large remains too often a hostile place for people who live, look, or love a different way. In The Dance Tree, I wanted to offer my characters a place to be safe and themselves. […] Lisbet is my attempt to offer a mirror to anyone else struggling to see themselves, and a window to those who might need the insight.' Agnethe’s return coincides with the church making an unreasonable demand on the farm. And it is these two events that trigger and drive the story we read. Set in Strasbourg, in 1518, the fiction is inspired by a dancing plague which historical accounts suggest sent the city into a mania for three months of relentless dancing in the streets. The novel focuses on the pregnant Lisbeth, and the women closest to her, as the repercussions of this frenzy impact upon them in myriad ways as they are pushed to the limits of endurance.

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