The Good People by Hannah Kent
I waited impatiently over a year for this book to be released in Canada. I first expected it in September 2016 (but that was only the Australian release date), then in December 2016 (but then it got pushed all the way back to September 2017). The book was worth the wait! I devoured it in three days. The Good People tells the story of three women – Nóra, a widow whose daughter has also recently died, leaving her young son Mícheál in Nóra’s care; Nance, the village’s healer woman; and Mary, a young woman Nóra hires to help care for Mícheál.
And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johann about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. it was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest. (140)
Nóra unsettled me. At first, she’s quite the sympathetic character, grieving for her husband and daughter. She misses the happy, healthy Mícheál she once met. She seeks the priest’s help but he dismisses her, saying that Mícheál has turned ‘idiot’ and that Nóra shouldn’t speak of fairies. After her visit with the priest, she whips Mícheál with nettles, claiming she hoped to cure him, as Nance once used the method to cure Nóra’s husband of a minor injury. But as the story progresses, Nóra starts believing the whispers of the townspeople. The boy is not really Mícheál – he’s a changeling, and perhaps Nance, familiar with the Good People, can bring the real Mícheál back. I grew uncomfortable with Nóra’s behaviour as she takes increasingly drastic actions to be rid of the ‘changeling’. Thankfully, Mary brings an outsider’s perspective to Nóra’s actions. She emphasizes the idea that Nóra’s beliefs and actions aren’t right, despite what folk belief says.
The keener. The handy woman. Nance opened her mouth and people thought of the way things went wrong, the way one thing became another. They looked at her white hair and saw twilight. She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark. (28)
The villagers play a significant role in the story. They gossip and fuel rumours about a changeling in Nóra’s household, then they disdain her further when she believes those rumours. The new priest, who wants the village to disavow Nance, only increases the tension. The villagers continue to seek help from Nance, as they have always done, but they scorn her afterwards and spread lies about her intentions. Even redheaded Mary frightens some of the villagers, Mary who does her best to protect Mícheál. Kent excels at capturing the nuances and hardships of rural life two centuries ago, at exploring how relationships and behaviours can be transformed by belief. When I think about this setting, I often reduce it to a simple kind of life. Kent crafts a story from a rich history and time period and gives us a striking look into a different way of life, where people’s lives are just as full of story and emotion as our own today.
‘Oh, Nóra,’ Peg murmured. ”Tis no easy thing. As Nance was telling ye, sometimes ’tis better to care for the changeling in your grandson’s place if you can’t be getting rid of it.’ (253)
I recently reread The Witches of New York. That book features real witches performing real magic; I would call it historical magical realism. Here in The Good People, which is pure historical fiction, I found myself wishing the magic was real so that Nóra could be set at ease and everything could turn out alright, as she imagined it would. Although I knew true events inspired this book, I didn’t know what those events were. In Burial Rites, it was well-publicized that the book was about the last woman executed in Iceland, so I knew that Agnus would die at the end. The conclusion of The Good People was a surprise to me. What happened at the climax was particularly intense – I found myself holding my breath and having to look away from the page.
The Bottom Line
A bleak yet atmospheric read, The Good People tells the tragic story of what can happen when a woman finds no support in her community and has to cling to folk beliefs in the name of love.