The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Book review

The Dance Tree is just the best kind of historical fiction – with its roots in real events and a truly wonderful, emotive story, I loved it! In her author’s note, Kiran Millwood Hargrave says that she took part of The Dance Tree‘s story from a real, unusual happening: ‘Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, dancing plagues, or choreomania, occurred regularly.’ What is choreomania, you might be wondering? Well, read on…

Opening sentence: She heard there was bread in the square.

Let’s take a trip to Strasbourg, 1518

Our lead character is Lisbet Wiler. She lives on a farm – that primarily makes money through bee hives – with her husband Henne and her not very welcoming mother-in-law, Sophie.

Lisbet longs to be a mother but has heartbreakingly experienced multiple miscarriages. This is the heart of the story as Lisbet creates a beautiful tribute to her lost children:

There at the centre is a thick-trunked linden with a stage built into its branches. A dance tree.

Lisbet’s dance tree is where she goes to remember her babies and find a moment of solace. Her life is sad but steadily plods along until her exiled sister-in-law, Agnethe (whom Lisbet has never met before) returns to the farm after seven years at a monastery. The atmosphere changes and Lisbet is left with lots of questions. Why was Agnethe exiled? And why is there a strange atmosphere between Agnethe and Lisbet’s best friend, Ida, who is generally nice to everyone?

Dance, Dance, Dance

Scattered throughout Lisbet’s story are vignettes about women and why they dance. These are wonderful windows into the hardships of women, how they are overlooked, have no voice, no once caring for them while they look after everyone. Very relevant in the 16th century but still rings true today for so many women. Choreomania was their outlet, the only way they had left to express themselves.

They say there is a dancing plague, and that the whole city is running mad.

A personal story

Author Kiran Millwood Hargrave also shared in her author’s note that she wanted to write a book about a character that experiences miscarriage as it’s something she has experienced but isn’t a common theme in fiction, despite it being something that touches so many women. The Dance Tree is a truly personal story for her and this rings out from every page.

I just adored The Dance Tree. A feminist, emotive, important story that celebrates love and hope and is so, so beautifully written.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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