The Alewives (The Alewives of Colmar)

Written by Elizabeth R. Andersen
Review by Anna Belfrage

It took but a page or two for me to be fully invested in Gritta, one of the protagonists, in this entertaining read. It’s 1353, and Gritta is a survivor of the Great Pestilence. Miraculously (or not; there are moments when Gritta is not so sure), so are all her twelve children. But the town of Colmar has been badly hit by the Black Death, the substantially reduced number of inhabitants plagued by memories of this very dark time.

Gritta’s best friend, Appel, has lost husband, children, grandson—well, everyone, including her servant boy. As the widow of a tanner, Appel is reasonably well off—surprisingly so, thinks Gritta, who has her own suspicions as to how Appel makes ends meet. Then there’s Efi: young and pretty and with the brains of a newt, Efi becomes the third in Gitta’s and Appel’s venture to improve their finances. Together, the three ladies start brewing ale.

Colmar is not only recovering from the plague; it is also afflicted by a thief who is stealing valuables from the Dominican abbey. Plus, there are all those women who end up murdered. What began as a business venture soon becomes something of a sleuthing exercise as Gritta, Appel, Efi and the endearing Franciscan Friar Wikerus start unravelling just who the criminal is.

All this action and intrigue is set against a vividly described historical setting (cabbage leaves as coolers is a new one) painting a picture of a harsh life, but nonetheless a life. Gritta and her companions have learned the hard way just how ephemeral life is, which may be why they are so determined to build better future for themselves. Bravo to the alewives, I say. And bravo to Ms. Andersen for delivering such an enjoyable read!