March 13, 2006

Beware the PK's: Dangerous Pastor's Kids

The Salem Witch Trials are a snippet of American history which writers never seem to tire of exploiting. For all its popularity, few people know, however, that the trials were themselves not an isolated incident, but that witch-hunting was a "sport" that took place all over Europe and spilled into the Americas only later on. As Europe and the Americas battled between old ways and new, old political structures of Kings and priests and the new hunger for democracy, even religion got in on the act, making a change over from a pantheist pagan worldview to a monotheistic Christian one. Unfortunately, Christianity was a deadly harsh and narrow world view as take on by the Puritans, and brooked no opposition from anyone who clung to old traditions. Another telling of a tragic and horrible story, Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter uses a strange brew of fantasy and historical fact to present a fresh angle on Massachusetts in the 1640's.

Nell is a Merrybegot; a wonderfully lyrical name for a fatherless child conceived on Mayday, a time of year when the veil between the worlds thins and magic is celebrated. Merrybegots are special to the world of humans and fairy, and protected, so Nell's life has been relatively happy, though she knows little or nothing about her parents, and lives with her only surviving relative, her grandmother.

The new Puritan minister and his daughters don't smile on the Merrybegot; they actually don't smile on much of anyone or anything. Nell and her cunning woman grandmother are frowned on from the very start. Nell's grandmother feels a change coming to the village, with the arrival of a new minister, and begins to pack her teachings into her granddaughter's agile brain as fast as she can; watch for Piskies, learn the herbs which heal a flatulent stomach, cure bruises or dull the pain of a rotting tooth. Walk swiftly, be handy, and keep your head up: you're a Merrybegot, and you've nothing to give you shame.

Nell puts little-girl ways behind her, and in time she is ministering to both fairies and humans. She runs afoul of the minister's eldest daughter, Grace, and her jealous and sickly younger sister, Patience, but has no time to worry about them -- there are people to help, and her first calling is as healer. When the inevitable occurs, due to a tangled tale of jealousy and unwanted pregnancies in the Minster's manse, Nell sees real evil for the first time. Not in the harmless Piskies and forest dwellers, but in her fellow man, those who speak against her, and those who remain silent about the monstrous happenings within their community.

The third-person narrative uses flashbacks from 1992 given by Patience to cement the feeling of historical accuracy, creating a disturbingly realistic story (even with the inclusion of Piskies), and provides an enormously chilling and horrifying conclusion to this piece of vividly told fantasy-fiction.

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