03 June 2022

Review: The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave book cover

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

In 1518, hundreds of people from Strasbourg started dancing uncontrollably without resting, sometimes for days on end. It was a medieval dancing plague where people danced until their feet bled and beyond, some of them literally danced themselves into an early grave. What compelled these people living in what we now call France to dance to their deaths? Why did they start? And why - or how - did they stop? Was it demonic possession? Fungus in their bread? Religious fervour? It's a mystery that's always fascinated me.

Now, Kiran Millwood Hargrave has given us The Dance Tree; an historical fiction novel about the dancing plague. Yes please!! I was so onboard for this, wondering what a skilled author would do with such unexplainable phenomena.

Set in Strasbourg in 1518, the author did an excellent job depicting the town, homes and livelihoods of the residents. Much of the novel put me in mind of the start of Devotion by Hannah Kent, the beginning of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and The Familiars by Stacey Halls. The bare living conditions, the importance of religion in the community, the lack of agency held by the female characters and their resilience and sheer determination are elements I've enjoyed exploring in the past.

Here, our main characters are Lisbet, Ida and Nethe and they're each making the best of their circumstances. Lisbet is a homemaker desperate for children and some of my favourite parts of the novel were passages where Lisbet tends to her beehives, her greatest passion in the world.

The tree of the title is a special and sacred place, as we learn early on:
"She’d recognised it instantly for what it was: a dance tree. A doom tree. A relic of the pagans who had their churches open under God." Page 39
The tree isn't crucial to the story, however it's significant to Lisbet and soon becomes a type of safe haven. When the women begin dancing in public, rumours quickly spread but Lisbet wants to see for herself.
"Why do you think those women dance? Because there is no earthly way to be saved. You and Mutter [Mother] have told me enough times - Strasbourg is sliding Hellwards. And we women, we bear the brunt. We are bred or banished, and always, always damned. Prayers cannot help us, the priests will not help us." Page 153
The Dance Tree is inspired by true events, and just as in The Mercies (inspired by true events in a different country a century later in 1617), the author offers valuable information on the events contained within the novel in her Author's Note at the end.

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and I can't wait to find out what event in history she'll write about next.

My Rating:


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  1. I was fascinated by The Mercies. The dancing plague sounds like a great event to center a novel.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Joy! If you enjoyed The Mercies, you're sure to love this too.

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  2. I recently heard about this dancing plague but did not know there was a book about it. I am gonna need to read this book.

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Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!