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The Good People

Review

The Good People

Book selection is met with anticipation once a month. The choices are many, varied and interesting. Each of us probably has our own system for picking a title --- favorite authors, reliable publishers, genre, or perhaps just taking a shot after reading a plot synopsis. We lucky reviewers have that delicious pleasure of opening each new book --- the joy of hearing the UPS guy at the door. It’s kind of a “Wells Fargo Wagon” moment if you’re old enough to recall “The Music Man.”

When I saw the cover of THE GOOD PEOPLE, I was unfamiliar with the author, or even what that mysterious title might portend. Little, Brown is a reliable publisher, so it must be a worthy product. And it’s historical fiction, which is my kind of read. When I read the plot description, something went “click” in my head: Central Ireland, early 19th century, pagan practices, pre-Famine period. This is the origin of my ancestors on my mother’s side.

"Hannah Kent has drawn on extensive research of Irish herbal cures, midwifery and trials for witchcraft of the era.... This story of deep love, undeniable belief, dedication and eventual fear will haunt you."

I had found a small, yellowed, fragile sampler, pressed between butcher paper in the false bottom of a blanket chest I inherited after the death of my mother some years ago. Included was a note in her hand stating, “Mary Lynch, her handiwork at nine years of age, September 1809.” I promptly took it to a professional framer where I had it sealed and framed in museum glass to hang, hidden from sunlight, in my dining room. I see it every day, often wondering about that child, my great-great grandmother, who carefully stitched a traditional alphabet and number sampler on what appears to be cloth sacking. It is a bit grubby, probably soiled by childish hands, but far too delicate to try to clean.

Here was a book by acclaimed author Hannah Kent about those times in that place --- a girl with my family name who would have been the same age in 1825 as many of the book’s characters, living perhaps within a few miles of the place where this mesmerizing story of fairies, people being “swept” by The Good People, herbal healing by women with the touch, under threats of hellfire by the growingly powerful Church, is set. These are stories I had been fascinated with my whole life for unknown reasons.

THE GOOD PEOPLE is the haunting tale of Nance, an aging hermit wanderer, turned to by the sick and injured, who births babies and heals rheumatism in the old ways. Nora Leahy is recently widowed and left with the grandson of her only daughter who was said to have been “swept” by the fairies --- The Good People. Michael, who was born healthy, learned to walk and talk, but became a wild thing after his mother died. Shriveled, screeching like a fox, eating voraciously and still not thriving, he is skin and bone. Nora hides him from sight, but rumors spread and he is declared a changeling by the villagers, a cretin by the priest. Nora hires a young girl to help care for the boy who she declares was once her grandson and now is “off with the fairies.” Nance, the hermit healer, is called upon to help drive out the evil spirits from the boy, returning her healthy grandson to her family.

The story spins out like a thriller, pulling the reader through the ancient mystical nostrums and folkloric rituals of old Erin superstitions. The villagers grow divided as the new priest thunders at Sunday mass against the old ways, threatening those with hellfire who practice the old ways. When the potato crop begins to fail, cow’s milk is too thin to make butter, chickens stop laying and crops dry up, the earliest signs of the coming famine hover on a distant horizon. The villagers suspect it is the hermit healer who is at the root of their ills.

Hannah Kent has drawn on extensive research of Irish herbal cures, midwifery and trials for witchcraft of the era. It was especially rewarding to imagine that my own ancestor lived in those times in conditions unimaginable to us today. Miraculously surviving the Great Famine, my ancestors did not arrive in America until the mid-1850s. So many books have been written about the Great Famine, so imagine my delight in finding a tale from that earlier time. This story of deep love, undeniable belief, dedication and eventual fear will haunt you.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on September 29, 2017

The Good People
by Hannah Kent

  • Publication Date: September 19, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316243965
  • ISBN-13: 9780316243964