CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007
Originally published in 1994 and nominated then for a Governor General’s Literary Award, The Burning Time has been brought back into print by Orca.
Matas has written a short, but powerful, historical fiction novel set in 1600 southern France during the time of the Reformation. Fifteen-year-old Rose's life is torn apart after her father dies and jealous family members withdraw their support after they learn that the farm lands have been left to her mother. Her mother, Suzanne, is a midwife and healer who relies on herbs and natural remedies to aid the sick, and she has helped many villagers, but, in the process, she has made an enemy of the local doctor. Both Rose and her mother refuse advances made to them from men in the community who offer to care for them, since two women living alone "without the protection of a man" was unusual in this time period.
A judge arrives in town, stating that King Henry the Fourth has bestowed on him full powers to execute any witches who live among them. Thinking that life will improve when her two older brothers return from their trip, Rose is shocked to hear that her own mother is now accused of being a witch by Rose’ own uncle.
Betrayed by family members and friends who are at first jealous of the family's success and then become fearful of being guilty by association, Rose feels she might as well join her mother in death. Just when she is at the point of giving up, she is helped by Sylvie, a maid for the count and countess, who risks her own life to help. Raymond, Rose’s childhood friend and possible future husband also shows courage and helps her hide, supplying her with food and village news.
Many important social and moral issues are raised in this novel by the strong characters. Suzanne is willing to die to protect her daughter and other village women. How is Rose to respond when her mother asks for her help in dying? Sylvie is a heroine who understands what motivates people and uses these insights to help. Father Bernard, the local priest, betrays his vows to the church and his parish as he offers his protection to Suzanne in return for carnal favors. Rose finds inordinate courage and strength as she watches the baseness of humanity meet with integrity, which enables her to see a future for herself even without those she has loved so dearly.
Matas paints a powerful and aptly dark picture of this historical time where women were accused, tortured to confess, and then often burned at the stake. The plot grips readers’ attention, maintains it to the end. Readers will find relief when they read the postscript written by Rose, five years later.
Betty Klassen teaches in the Middle Years Program in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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