The Dance Tree

Three years ago, I loved Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s historical novel The Mercies, and I’ve looked forward to reading more from her since. This week, she releases her second adult novel, The Dance Tree. This one goes back even farther in time than its predecessor, taking readers to Strasbourg in 1518, amidst the dancing plague that occurred between July and September of that year. It’s a compelling work of historical fiction with echoes of the kinds of issues still present today.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Harper Audio for providing me with an ARC of this book!


It’s summer of 1518 in Strasbourg, a city on the border of what are now France and Germany. Lisbet is pregnant, and though she lost all of her previous pregnancies, it seems that this time she may finally be blessed with a baby. She lives with her aloof husband and critical mother-in-law, and the sister-in-law she’s never met has just returned home from a seven-year penance. Their livelihood is their bees, but that could be taken away from them due to an unjust decision made by those in power. When her husband leaves to fight against it, Lisbet has time to get to know her new sister, Agnethe. Soon, though, a dancing plague emerges in town, igniting a domino effect of chaos. From Lisbet’s delicate pregnancy to the secret between Agnethe and neighbor Ida, from the arrival of musicians to the dancing plague itself, this will prove to be a tumultuous summer that could change everything for these women.


In my review for The Mercies, I described Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing as “crisp” and “at once stark and intimate.” Those adjectives apply equally to The Dance Tree. For some readers, this may create a distance that prevents feeling connected with the characters. However, in both novels, I have found that it’s a perfect balance. I cared about the characters here, was mesmerized by their story, and yet the subtle distance also places it within a real historical context.

The Dance Tree follows Lisbet and her perspective as she learns more about the people around her. At the novel’s beginning, she is focused primarily on the bees she tends to and on the baby growing inside her, due within just a few months. She’s not close to her husband or mother-in-law, and she mourns the loss of all her unborn babies. And yet she has a fire inside of her, a determination to hold this baby, to keep her bees, to feel fulfillment and joy. Her sister-in-law Agnethe has just returned after a seven-year banishment; for what crime, Lisbet does not know. But soon, the two of them grow to like and trust each other. Lisbet’s neighbor and best friend, Ida, seems to have unpleasant history with Agnethe… but both women have their lips sealed on that subject.

After Lisbet’s husband leaves town to fight for their ownership of their bees (their livelihood), the summer rapidly grows eventful. First, Lisbet witnesses a woman dancing in town, as if in a trance. It’s not long before a dancing plague has erupted, leading women to dance uncontrollably for days on end. The men in power aim to stop this chaos, bringing in musicians who are directed to stay in Lisbet’s home. One of them, a Turk named Aren, forms a close connection with her. Meanwhile, Lisbet is uncovering shocking secrets between Ida and Nethe, secrets she’ll protect as fiercely as if they were her own. Between these three young women, Aren, and Lisbet’s mother-in-law Sophie, the summer gets tangled and turns dangerous.

The Dance Tree is an impactful and powerful novel, and many of its themes feel just as relevant today. It addresses xenophobia, the LGBTQ+ community, mental health, and power, especially for women living in a patriarchal society that is deeply religious and superstitious. It is singularly feminist, highlighting the strength women have to carry on despite everything and celebrating different relationships between women. The novel also questions the authority of religious leaders, of men who claim to be as worthy of worship as God.

Another important theme in the novel is Lisbet’s own struggles with fertility. She’s been pregnant 12 times before but has never carried one to term. In her heart she feels like a mother, even if no one else recognizes her as such. They see her as a failure, as cursed. Lisbet is pregnant again now, farther along than ever before, and determined for this baby to live. This may be a difficult theme for some, but it is treated with care, largely inspired by the author’s own experiences.

Between these different reasons making people feel marginalized, like sinners, they find solace in the “dance tree” Lisbet secretly tends. Deep in the forest, her dance tree contains symbols of each of her lost babies. It’s a safe haven for her, and becomes a safe haven for the people in her life who also need solace and a place to feel free to be themselves. The dance tree is a pagan practice—and thus dangerous for Lisbet if anyone were to find it—and yet is the only real comfort for her.

In the end, the dancing plague is a backdrop more than a central element else here. The Dance Tree isn’t directly about the dancing plague, and its main characters don’t exactly experience this mania themselves. It serves more as a backdrop for the other themes at play here, setting the tone for a tumultuous and overly hot summer. However, for those who do want a glimpse of the dancing plague, there are numerous brief accounts of otherwise unknown characters between some chapters. They bolster the novel’s arc and give it extra space to tie everything together.

The audiobook for The Dance Tree, narrated by Ruta Gedmintas, perfectly matches the tone of the novel. While at first it may feel too gentle or too remote, in time it proves to be exactly the right style for the story. Ruta Gedmintas gives the characters enough space to flourish, and I commend her excellent narration. 

Final Thoughts

The Dance Tree is sparse and yet evocative, a powerfully written novel for marginalized people who find their own solace and internal strength. It delves into themes of motherhood and loss, sexuality, xenophobia, feminism, mental health, and religion, and is ultimately both captivating and hopeful.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Get the Book

You can buy The Dance Tree here – it’s available as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Audiobook NarratorRuta Gedmintas
GenreHistorical Fiction
SettingStrasbourg, France
Book Length9.5 hours
Format I ReadAudiobook (NetGalley)
Original Publication DateMarch 14, 2023

Official Summary

In this gripping historical novel, the internationally bestselling author of The Mercies weaves a spellbinding tale of fear, transformation, courage, and love in sixteenth-century France.

Strasbourg, 1518. In the midst of a blisteringly hot summer, a lone woman begins to dance in the city square. She dances for days without pause or rest, and when hundreds of other women join her, the men running the city declare a state of emergency and hire musicians to play the Devil out of the mob. Outside the city, pregnant Lisbet lives with her husband and mother-in-law, tending the bees that are the family’s livelihood. Though Lisbet is removed from the frenzy of the dancing plague afflicting the city’s women, her own quiet life is upended by the arrival of her sister-in-law. Nethe has been away for seven years, serving a penance in the mountains for a crime no one will name.

It is a secret Lisbet is determined to uncover. As the city buckles under the beat of a thousand feet, Lisbet becomes caught in a dangerous web of deceit and clandestine passion. Like the women of Strasbourg, she too, is dancing to a dangerous tune. . . .

Set in an era of superstition, hysteria, and extraordinary change, and inspired by true events, The Dance Tree is an impassioned story of family secrets, forbidden love, and women pushed to the edge.

About the Author

Kiran Millwood Hargrave - Credit Tom de Freston

Credit: Tom de Freston

Kiran Millwood Hargrave (b. 1990) is an award-winning poet, playwright, and novelist. Her bestselling works for children include The Girl of Ink & Stars and have won numerous awards including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year and the Blackwell’s Children’s Book of the Year. They have also been shortlisted for prizes such as the Costa Children’s Book Award, the Blue Peter Best Story Award and the Foyles Book of the Year Award. The Mercies is is her first novel for adults. Kiran lives by the river in Oxford, with her husband, artist Tom de Freston, and their rescue cat, Luna.

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