The Good People
Hannah Kent
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Buy *The Good People* by Hannah Kentonline

The Good People
Hannah Kent
Little, Brown
400 pages
September 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Set in Ireland in 1825, Kent’s historical novel is not a book for the casual reader, for mere amusement or for passing the time. The Good People is for a serious, ambitious reader willing to put thought and effort into the world of changelings and devils and fairies who travel ghost-like throughout the rural valley of County Kerry. Central to the tale are the herbal cures of “old biddy” Nance Roche, a handywoman whose role is to end “the daily blights and bruises of the living.” Nance can cure illness with red dandelion or penny leaves, even “the salted tongue fox.” The villagers just want Nance’s hands holding their own, “they see her not just an age-old loneliness but the proof of her cure.”

Times are changing, even in this remote landscape where people feel in need of the old ways and knowledge. They remain wary of tempting the devil or the fairies--the Good People who inhabit The Piper’s Grace, the lurking fairy dell by the Flesk River where Nance has set up shop. Lately, “the parade of sickness” to Nance's door has thinned since the village’s new priest, Father Healy, has started to preach against her. Arriving at her ramshackle cabin, the Father tells her that he will not have this parish riddled with superstition “by those who mean to profit by it.” He wants to put Nance on “a better path,” never mind that Nance is used to her life lived alone with only “the skittering presence of birds” for company.

The opening chapters of The Good People focus on the death of beloved Martin Leahy, specifically on Martin’s wife, Nora, as she attempts to deal with the loss of her husband. Nance keens with the other women, muttering prayers for the dead, asking God to accept Martin’s departed soul. Martin’s death, however, is just one of a series of misfortunes that reverberate throughout the valley. After Nora’s daughter dies, her son-in-law arrives with Micheal, their sickened four-year-old. Expected to care for him, Nora can hardly believe that this slack-mouthed "cripple” is actually her grandson. The boy bears little resemblance to the child she remembers.

Kent brings great authenticity to her tale of grieving, frustrated people constricted by religion and by superstition. Mary Clifford, the young indentured "strange girl” comes to the village from up North to care for Micheal. Nora is convinced that the “real” Micheal was carried away by “the Good People.” Nance is positive that the “cure will work best for those who seek it.” The big picture here is the story of Kent’s three heroines: Nora, Mary and Nance. In the space of one breath, the women begin to see how copper-headed Micheal had scattered into air and become unreachable, “gone to god; gone to places too full of bones and too full of the weight of the years.”

Mary wants to go home. She hates the valley and “the brittle unnatural child.” She hates the "damp loneliness" that hangs off the widow “like a mist,” the broken nights, and “the smell of piss” that clings to the cripple’s clothes. On the other hand, it’s a good thing Nance had heard “the Good People” summoning her to the valley. They see “the fairy” in her skill as they let her lay her crooked hands on their own troubled flesh. Micheal is not the first child Nance has seen with mark of the Good People. She tells Nora that the boy is not Johanna’s son and not her grandson, “tis fairy you know that the look of him the wasting on him.” Even so, Nance senses that something terrible is going to happen: that in some irreparable way, the world is spinning away from her, flinging her to some “forsaken corner.”

Nora’s desire to cure Micheal pulls us into the story and the sense of dread. Nora will go to enormous lengths to cast out the “the withered fairy” that inhabits her grandson. Fearful and desperate, Nora seeks out Nance while Mary forms a tentative bond with the boy. In a world where the Church considers herb-pulling to be an “abuse of God’s holy ordinance,” where eggs are of blood, babies are lost at birth, men die at crossroads, and cows are sucked dry of milk, Nora and Nance continue to believe that this changeling will return to his supernatural realm. Terrified of her own journey, Mary seeks out redemption and deliverance. Far too frightened of all the “fairy folk,” Mary prays for forgiveness, fearful of God when Nance and Nora’s plan to expunge “the cratur” takes a decidedly disastrous turn.

Kent leads us through her world of fairy-inhabited waters, a wild woman whose destiny is set, and a mother forced to endure a shocking court case in which the righteousness of Nance’s “heathen practices and pagan delusions” are tested by the law. There is real human drama here, made all the more tangible by Kent’s bright and simple prose. Featuring strong but flawed heroines, The Good People is a thoughtful examination of three vulnerable outcasts, each determined to hold onto their age-old superstitious beliefs in the face of the church’s encroaching faith.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Micheal Leonard, 2018

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