The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn was a moving and delightful read. It was a book I had been searching for, ever since I read Hearn’s Ivy and looked up other titles by the author. I’d gleamed from the description that it was about witches, 17th century England, and fairies, featuring lead female characters; I had to find it! For one reason or another, finding a copy of this book proved near impossible. I searched chain book stores and used book shops alike, scouring the country for this rare title. Finally, I found it resting quietly in the stacks of my local library.
Don’t be fooled by the dour sounding title, The Minister’s Daughter is a story laced with magic, focusing on Nell, a merrybegot, the granddaughter of a cunningwoman who was conceived on May Day, meaning she is protected by the piskies and fairies that dwell in the forests and out on the moors. Set in the English countryside during the 1640’s, Hearn has created an intimate portrait of village life many centuries ago. It was a time when pagan beliefs were bleeding in to the past, when the local people were getting swept up in the Protestant fervor and witch hunts were taking over the nation.
New to Nell’s town are a strict minister and his two daughters, Grace, strikingly beautiful but cruel, and Patience, seemingly simple and ordinary looking. The fates of the minister’s daughters and that of young Nell are intertwined, forever changing the course of their lives, when Grace resorts to any means necessary in order to conceal her out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Hearn alternates between the different characters’ perspectives to tell this story. The pace moves quickly, but the poetic articulations of each person’s thoughts and observations helped to ground me enough in the narrative before it glides on to the next action.
I loved the melding of historical fiction with a touch of fantasy in this book. The piskies and fairies embroider the edges of this tale, ducking in from time to time to play their parts in the unfolding of the drama, but they remained a believable element, never overshadowing the human characters or events. I also really appreciated the clever way that the author set up this story as a prequel for the Salem witch trials.
At the end of her book, she includes a moving afterward that struck me as the root of The Minister’s Daughter and why the telling of this story feels so important to me:
Something the writer Carol Karlsen said of the girls involved in the Salem Witch Trials stuck in my mind: “As a community looked on, their bodies expressed what they could not: that the enormous pressures put upon them to accept a religiously based male-centered social order was more than they could bear.” My own Nell and her grandmother typify the countless numbers of single, outspoken, unconventional women and girls, who have been accused of witchcraft in numerous times and places around the world.
I think what Julie Hearn does so beautifully in this book, is to depict the struggles that women and girls faced as a result of patriarchy during this incredibly heated period. Whether you were the minister’s daughter or the witch’s granddaughter, you were liable to fall victim to the expectations of the times. Unless you had the piskies on your side…