The Dance Tree

Written by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Review by Aidan K. Morrissey

Strasbourg, in the long hot summer of 1518. A woman starts to dance in the market square. The dance is relentless, and soon she is joined by hundreds or thousands of others, dancing, without rest, until their feet are ripped and bleeding. Events of that year, when belief in God was absolute and His wrath was blamed for the dancing plague, have defied explanation.

Set against the backdrop of this true phenomenon, The Dance Tree is the story of Lisbet, living on a farm and tending bees with her husband Henne and his mother. After the grief and anger surrounding a series of twelve miscarriages, Lisbet feels her husband no longer loves her. However, pregnant again, she finds help, friendship, and courage from her enigmatic sister-in-law, Agnethe, and her friend, Ida. Agnethe has returned from seven punishing years in a convent, where she was sent to atone for a sin which no-one will talk about. Once the secret is revealed, the author treats us to a superb historical journey, with central themes that are of importance in our modern world.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a writer of rare talent. The story is compelling with realistic, wonderfully shaped, and diverse characters, both likeable and not. Lisbet’s pain at the loss of her children, denied graves, is palpable. Her understanding of Agnethe’s troubles arrives after much heartache and soul-searching. This is a page-turning, thoroughly researched, heart-rending story, with women at its front and centre. A true pleasure to read with excellent scene-setting, giving it a real sense of being there.