It is a time of great difficulty. The clergy persecutes people who behave outside of their prescribed behaviours. Community leaders use fear to control people and hold sway over towns. Anyone acting oddly is quickly condemned and considered suspicious. Neighbours turn against neighbours. Superstitions and old ways of doing things are prevalent. Ostracization occurs without any facts and the truth of the matter is irrelevant. Crops and livestock fail. Children are hungry and food is scarce. It’s a hard, long winter.
Hannah Kent’s The Good People is set in 1825/1826 Ireland. What did you think I was writing about?
Nora, a recent widow, is faced with caring for her dead daughter’s boy. There’s something wrong with the child, who was healthy when he was younger. Desperate for help, she hires a young girl Mary to take care of him. Mary has empathy and compassion for the poor, crippled boy, who is hated by his grandmother. Nora believes the boy has been replaced by a changeling. The village, lead by the women, believes he’s responsible for their hardships —everything from cows without milk to the death of Nora’s husband. Nora turns to Nance, an old woman with professes to have the Cure for all manner of illnesses and believes she can drive the changeling out.
The novel, although fiction, is based on a story from newspaper clippings at the time. The hint of realism gives the implausibility of fairies and changelings stable footing. Our own biases weigh in—of course there could be fairies in Ireland. Kent paints a world so different from our own that it seems like a fantasy, newspaper clippings aside.
At the same time, the themes of ostracism, using fear to control communities and the quick rush to judgment from authority figures are not so wild. Hello world.
The village women walk in and out of the story, bringing kindness or censure to the widow.
They stir the pot, but it’s the men who do the real damage—burning property, chasing folks out of town, embracing rumours. The women stick to their talk and the only things they act on are “women’s problems.” After all, the women of the time had little recourse except to depend on their men. Had Nora’s husband not died, things may have gone differently. Nance is the exception, because she has always been alone. The women are rough, troubled and without self-determination. Their desperate choices fit into the world Kent creates.
I love the title of this book too. The fairies are referred to as The Good People. And we can assume that the book’s characters would hold themselves up as good people, even when making choices that by today’s standards don’t make sense.
Related reads: The Witches by Stacy Schiff is a non-fiction exploration of the Salem witch trials in 1692. This reads like a fiction, and explores similar themes: the disenfranchisement of women and girls and the impact it has on communities when there is no recourse for them.