I wish I could remember the way I found out about The Hemlock Cure by Joann Burn. I think I fell down a “best mysteries” rabbit hole, clicking on links and reading suggestions. But I’m very glad I fell down that hole. This book was worth the trip.
From the outset, I was hooked. It combines some of my favorite topics: the Bubonic Plague, mystery, and well-researched history. Looking at the Goodreads rating, you’d be inclined to believe this isn’t a particularly good book. I haven’t read any of the less than stellar reviews, but I think Burn’s book deserves a higher rating than 3.8.
Set in the town of Eyam during the resurgence of the Plague in 1666-1667, it tackles both the facts of the time–that Eyam decided to isolate itself from neighboring towns in an effort to stop the spread of plague–and the underlying tensions created by the religious atmosphere caused when Cromwell’s Protectorate ended. Layered in this is the dynamic of females being persecuted for having medical knowledge and the men who disdain them.
That’s a lot to take on; yet, Burns doesn’t err by becoming preachy. She presents the characters fairly making them complex and flawed. Readers follow Wulfric Housely’s descent into insanity and Mae’s conflicted emotions toward her father and only surviving parent.
Though I am not especially a fan of constantly shifting points of view, I can see why she chose to do so. Some of the stories can only be told through the eyes of the participants, and this may be one of the criticisms of the book–those stories that are told. I can imagine there are those readers who may feel that the sub-plot of Isabel and Johan Frith isn’t necessary or accurate, it is, in fact, both.
At its most basic level, The Hemlock Cure is about the struggle for women to have the right to help other women through childbirth and beyond. It’s about autonomy for them and the misogynistic and paternalistic desire for control that the men in the community wield…which makes it–sadly– a tale for this moment in time.