Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Minister's Daughter

[Not for any challenge; just an ordinary review]

The Minister's Daughter (Published in the UK as The Merrybegot)

Author: Julie Hearn

Copyright: 2005; hardcover ISBN 0-689-87690-4. (very recently released in paperback here in the United States)

Length: 272 pages

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Summary: A curious mixture of historical fact and earthy folklore, The Minister's Daughter is set during the period of the English Civil War. Two sisters, Grace and Patience, daughters of the local Puritan minister, claim that they've been bewitched by Nell, the grandaughter of the local "cunning woman", a midwife-herbalist who follows old pagan/folk ways. Nell cares for her aging grandmother while mastering the old woman's knowledge and craft. When Nell refuses to comply with a request made by Grace, the foundation of the conflict is laid. When the Witch-Finder General, Matthew Hopkins, comes to town to support the minister in routing out Satanic believers, the villagers forget their positive experiences with Nell's grandmother and decide to blame Nell for a variety of concerns. Nell is, of course, innocent of any wrongdoing but some one must save her from the witch-hunters. There is enough action and mystery to the narrative to keep the attention of an adult. There are a few anachronisms that surface in the language, but I suspect those are there to assure the younger reader that the author's awareness is firmly in this century.

Excerpt: The book record for The Merrybegot at has an excerpt. The author's website has an audio version of a sample chapter as well.

Also Relevant: This was the December selection for the mystery & science fiction book group at Didi's (her write-up of the book is here). My opening gambit that night was that I was actually surprised that this book had been marketed as a young adult novel; the story telling style seemed far more sophisticated than I would have expected to find in YA fiction. (Apparently I haven't kept up with the field.) The award-winning story features witchcraft, sex, and earthy folklore which can pose a barrier to sales in some markets, even as it attracts a readership. The marketing blurbs made a clear reference to Hearn as a former student of Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass; nothing so unsubtle as "If you loved that book, you'll love this one," but a suggestion of similarity in the works of the two authors is certainly present. The characterization isn't entirely without merit. Those aligned with the Church come off poorly in this book even as the more Nature-based folk tradition is presented in a positive light. (Pullman has expressed his views on what's flawed in organized religion at his Web site as well as in the press.)

Personally, I was a little unhappy with the mix of historical fact and fantasy. The fantasy element served no purpose in the narrative (unless the author intended to suggest that religous beliefs should be classed with beliefs in piskies and fairies). I know that one member of our book group suggested that we had to see Nell's belief structure treated as respectfully as the dominant Christian beliefs of her environment. We had to believe the same way that Nell would believe. She may have had a point. Outside of that idea as well as a cynical suggestion that "magic sells", I couldn't fathom why else the fantasy element was necessary to Hearn's story.

We have actual historical figures, Matthew Hopkins, the WitchFinder General, and Bonnie Prince Charles, male authority figures who each wield power in Nell's story. Nell however is strong and closely guards her sense of ethics and sense of self. Is The Minister's Daughter supposed to be a feminist tale of warning? The author's Afterword would seem to suggest so. She quotes a sentence from her research, "As the 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." (see page 261 of the hardcover edition).

An additional point of contrast between Nell and Grace is that Nell actually adheres to her belief system and her personal behavior reflects a consistency of faith in its validity. Grace has no personal investment in the Christian belief system and behaves strictly out of fear of her parent and the social stigma associated with an unwed pregnancy. One should note that there are no redeeming qualities to Grace's character in this book. She's just an amoral soul from the get-go.

This is an entertaining read; I don't know how good the work itself is. One of my personal litmus tests for determining whether or not something is a good work of fiction is to see if, after reading it all the way through, I can identify the point of the story and sum up the essence in 25-50 words. Even now after thinking and writing about the book, I can't quite do that here. In Minister's Daughter, it might be that the author intends the reader to understand that one's own sense of identity is more important than any imposed by authority figures, society at large, or any external religious institution. Or perhaps it is that one should, as a general rule of thumb, be wary of both individual authority figures and institutional authority. Hearn may have been so concerned about not imposing on her readers' sensibilities that she edited out any clear authorial message of intent. That in my mind is a drawback. I may not agree with an author's message, but if I've invested the time to listen for it, I want to be able to find it. I like to come away with a clear sense of what the author wanted to communicate when he or she sat down to write. I'm still fumbling in trying to get Hearn's message.