The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Having enjoyed Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s previous book, The Mercies, I was looking forward to reading more of her work. This new novel, The Dance Tree, sounded very different, but equally intriguing. It’s set in 16th century Strasbourg during a plague of dancing – yes, dancing, which sounds harmless but, as the novel shows, is anything but.

The Dance Tree begins in 1518 and introduces us to Lisbet, a young pregnant woman, who lives with her husband and mother-in-law. Lisbet has already lost several babies and is determined to carry this one to full term; while her pregnancy advances she finds comfort in looking after the bees that provide the family’s livelihood and visiting the tree she has decorated in memory of her lost children. One day, Lisbet’s sister-in-law, Agnethe, comes home from the nunnery where she has been doing penance for the last seven years; Lisbet has no idea what the sin was that resulted in Agnethe being sent away, but she does know that her return has changed the dynamics within the household and that life will not be quite the same again.

Meanwhile, in the centre of Strasbourg, Frau Troffea walks into a market square, lifts up her hands and begins to dance. She is soon joined by more women…and more…and more, all of them dancing until the soles of their feet bleed. As the women continue to dance day after day – a desperate, frenzied dance that shows no sign of coming to an end – the authorities try to bring them under control, without success.

I knew nothing about the dancing plague before reading this book, so I found that aspect of the novel fascinating. Many theories have been put forward over the years to explain why the women danced, ranging from demonic possession or religious trance to ergot poisoning or mass hysteria. Even today, historians don’t know for sure what was behind the epidemic, but to help us understand some of the possible reasons, Kiran Millwood Hargrave provides back stories for some of the individual dancers. These stories are presented as brief chapters interspersed between Lisbet’s chapters, and although I thought they could have been better integrated into the novel as a whole, they were interesting to read.

I liked Lisbet and had a lot of sympathy for her situation, and also for her best friend, Ida, who is married to a controlling bully who belongs to the ‘Twenty One’, the group of men who rule the city. Agnethe is another intriguing character, although I found the reason for her seven-year penance too easy to guess. However, despite finding the characters interesting, I didn’t manage to form the deep emotional connection with any of them that I would have liked. I’m not sure why this should be, because Hargrave does write beautifully, except that I often find the use of present tense very distancing and I think that was the case here.

Although I didn’t love this book as much as I hoped, I would recommend Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books to readers interested in historical fiction dealing with women’s lives in unusual settings and circumstances – in this book, the Strasbourg dancing plague, and in The Mercies, the witch trials on the Norwegian island of Vardø.

Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 22/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

14 thoughts on “The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I thought I recognised the name… I picked up a copy of ‘The Mercies’ a while back (typically haven’t read it yet) because it looked interesting and different – as does this! I’ll look out for it.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, both books are fascinating. It’s good to see an author picking such unusual subjects that haven’t been written about a hundred times before!

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Indeed. As much as I love the Tudors it’s SO refreshing to have other times & places on offer more than occasionally!

  2. mallikabooks15 says:

    I’d never heard of the dancing plague. I wonder what did cause it. It’ll be interesting to see how its incorporated in the story; I do like the sound of it, even if it didn’t completely work out.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    I read a classic study of ergot poisoning in a French village in the 1950s quite a few years ago, and your synopsis of The Dance Tree reminded me very much of The day of St. Anthony’s fire by John G Fuller in the inexplicable mass reactions of many of the villagers – though I don’t necessarily think the two are related. Still, rye, which was a very common crop for flour in the middle ages (a bad batch of which was responsible for the Pont-Saint-Esprit outbreak of ergotism) could have been the culprit here.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t know anything about the dancing plague until I read this book, so I looked up some of the theories after finishing it. The idea that ergot poisoning was involved does sound one of the most convincing, at least if we’re looking for a biological reason rather than psychological.

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