The Dance Tree: A Novel
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Dance Tree tells more than it shows. When offering dramatic detail, the novel truly transports readers into the land and mindscape of the early 16th century near Strasbourg where what begins as a single woman’s dance in madness or ecstasy functions as a narrative hub onto which the author yokes a prolonged tease involving characters that, unlike descriptions of beehives, hovels and fetid streets, tends toward stereotype.
Lisbet is a keeper of bees, and it is largely through the eyes of this pregnant woman that other characters are introduced, to include Ida, the wife of a religious thug; and Agnethe, Lisbet’s sister-in-law, who has returned to her brother’s home after seven years’ penance in a mountain monastery for a sin implausibly concealed from the beekeeper until halfway through the novel. Given her own circumstance and the milieu of 1518 in Central Europe, Lisbet may see nothing but chaste affection between the church enforcer’s wife and Agnethe, but readers are not likely to be so puzzled or patient.
Descriptions of place and activity are luminous, poetic, and acutely rooted in observations of place and labor. Enter Strasbourg, “The miasma as heavy as fog, the sunlight mired to a feverish yellow that taints all it touches.” A tree sacred in pagan times bears the ribbons of the 12 children Lisbet has lost in childbirth, “twelve lengths of cotton ripped from the first infant’s smock she ever sewed, dyed in the brightest colors she could muster from beetroot and beetle wings.”
See the innards of a bee hive; “It looked like a diseased body, the malignant clumps of black bees like tortured growths, the sweet reek of honey and wax” filling Lisbet’s nostrils. The author’s evocation of labor among the skeps comes to life with selected and brilliant detail. The apiarist fashions water bowls for her bees that are “hollowed unevenly to allow the water to sit in little ponds” so that the nectar-loving insects will not drown.
The story’s setting is wonderfully rounded but its characters are not. This novel often feels as though it is written for a young adult audience, Lisbet and her intimate friends rendered as all-virtuous protagonists pitted against Herr Plater and a supporting cast of thugs. Instead of becoming fully realized characters, Lisbet, Ida, ’Nethe, and their antagonists become props in the author’s protest against misogyny and religious bigotry. The themes addressed in this novel are certainly worth exploring and urgently relevant to our own age, but the characters in Hargrave’s narrative become icons in a medieval cathedral. It would be refreshing in this regard to find queer characters who are capable of betrayal or bigotry, but Hargrave’s intimates are first and foremost signifiers in a polemic that is realized much more subtly in works by Margaret Atwood or Toni Morrison.
Despite constant intimations of disaster and damnation, all ends well for the major characters in this novel, an execution by drowning averted with the unlikely intervention of an itinerant Turkish musician, a devastating loss of property averted with sudden clemency from a church portrayed as inveterately merciless. The power and authority of men over women and the authority of bishops and elders over property that are established as evil and implacable obstacles throughout the narrative become suddenly malleable in service of a denouement that finds Lisbet and her newborn with Ida and Agnethe in open communion beneath the dancing tree.