The Burning Time
By Robin Morgan
Melville House, 2012
Honors: American Booksellers Association, “Book Sense” pick * “Reccomended Quality Fiction List 2007,” American Library Association Feminist Task Force * Amelia Bloomer Project
Welcome 2014 Girls of Summer Guest Star, Robin Morgan! Take it away, Robin:
For me, young adult’s books and, for that matter, children’s books, are literature, like any other (good) books. I grew up reading everything I could get my eyes on: Aesop, Grimm, Carroll, Anderson, Hudson, Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare, Girl of the Limberlost and Nancy Drew, Scott, comic books, poetry–and also Kafka (whom I found hilarious) and Hawthorne, Alcott and Poe, Twain and the Brontes and Mary Renault. Since I wasn’t told “That’s for adults, not you,” I happily read on, and what I didn’t understand I skipped over and returned to later. It was all literature to me, all magical.
Consequently, my so-far-one “children’s book,” The Mer Child, is subtitled A Legend for Children and Other Adults, and my recent historical novel, The Burning Time, was intended as a rollicking good saga, complete with practical witchcraft, horses and torches and medieval pageantry—the kind of book I as a child secretly continued reading under the covers by flashlight past bedtime. I had never thought of a readership age bracket for The Burning Time until it was highly recommended by the American Library Association Amelia Bloomer Project recognizing distinguished fiction for young people; later, some reviewer said it was “so juicy a tale it must be for young adults”—meaning what? That literature for older adults should be boring, flat, and alienated? Phooey.
The Mer Child, based on a fantasy tale I made up for bedtime telling to my son when he was eight, is really a love story of two kids, outsiders both, who find a deep kinship in each other. The Mer Child—son of a mermaid and a human–has pale green skin, surf-white hair, and a shimmering rainbow-hued tail, and isn’t fully accepted in the sea world or the human world. The Little Girl, daughter of a black mother and white father, is also not accepted, both because of her skin color and because her legs are paralyzed. These two outcasts find a home in each other. It’s a story about difference and sameness, not fitting in, the preciousness of being unique (and its cost)—and about overcoming bigotry and ignorance. All of those subjects are, I believe, decidedly appropriate for readers of any age, since every one of us, including children, experiences such things anyway and might as well be equipped to deal creatively with them.
The Burning Time is not a fantasy. It is based on the true story of one woman’s remarkable fight against the Inquisition, set against the vivid tapestry of the 14th century and drawn from court records of the first witchcraft trial in Ireland: the tale of an extraordinary real-life noblewoman, Lady Alyce Kyteler of Kilkenny. When the Church imported its Inquisition—known as “The Burning Time” to followers of the Old Religion, or the Craft of Wicce (Witch Craft)—to Ireland, it did so via an ambitious, sophisticated bishop acting as Papal Emissary. But Alyce Kyteler–educated, wealthy, and a Craft Priestess–refused to cede power to the Church over herself, her lands, her people, or their ancient faith. She and the bishop engaged in a personal battle of wits, and when she outmaneuvered him she provoked his hatred. He pronounced her followers heretics and gambled his Church career on breaking her. But Kyteler had power, connections, fearlessness, and the loyalty of her people, especially her courageous young handmaiden, Petronilla. Battle plans were laid. Finally, risking death by burning at the stake, Kyteler invoked a mysterious, possibly otherworldly ally–the novel’s shocking, dramatic climax. I wanted to write a lush, enthralling story of memorable characters based on actual historical figures, an unforgettable tale of power, politics, bravery, and passions both earthly and spiritual. When The Historical Novels Review called it “a fantastic page-turner”—I did a little dance around the room, since that is precisely what I had been working toward.
The point is the story, always the story.
I feel a deep, close relationship with my reader, and I respect her/his intelligence enormously. The truth is, I write what I’d love to read, at any age, myself!