The Minister’s Daughter (Review)

I just read The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn, one of the better novels I’ve read recently, though it didn’t make me swoon.

The Minister’s Daughter is a fantasy about Nell, a teenage apprentice healer and midwife who is learning the art from her ailing grandmother. It’s intended for teenagers and young adults. The story is set during the English civil war, in a world in which magic is real and witches are hunted to be hung on the gallows. The main conflict surrounds one of the minister’s teenage daughters, impregnated by one of the local boys who then refuses to take responsibility for the mother and child. Nell is drawn into this conflict and must choose whether to do the right thing, which will only get her in deeper.

I sympathized fully with Nell, and she was easily my favorite character. And the challenges and goals Nell faced, Julie Hearn handled them well. I also hated the minister and his daughter, who were the major villians. However, there were three weak areas: The fantasy elements were not fully part of the story; I did not find the minister a convincing villian; and there were a whole list of promises with no payoff.

For example, the piskies. They were funny. They were admirable. But they felt like tack-on story elements, only affecting the storyline when it was convenient to move the plot forward. How could the minister—or anybody—deny the existence of piskies? Even though they were rarely seen, they were occasionally seen. So one might deny that piskies had any special powers, but one surely couldn’t deny that they existed. In Hearn’s universe, piskies are real; therefore, even the minister, a crotchety Puritan who denounces anything magic, anything of Satan, should’ve admitted that piskies were actual creatures, animals, which are part of the millieu. I saw the same pattern being repeated with other story elements. It was as if on the one hand there’s this fantasy world, which is real, and then on the other there’s the minister’s theology, which is merely imagined.

This made the minister less believable. I would’ve feared him much more if he had some actual divine power behind him, or even some human power behind him. What was the source of his power? Fear? No, even fear needs a mechanism through which to wreak havoc. Was he deeply involved in the local politics? That’s one way one might gain power. But how could he have been? He was hardly ever there, always off “doing the Lord’s work.” How could he have so profoundly affected so many people? As a result, I felt the minister’s ability to do evil was contrived. I was angry at him, but more for being a jerk than for being an antagonist. I had to remind myself constantly that somehow in this story he’s not just a jerk but a dangerous man as well.

I also never did understand his motivation. He was just mean, I guess. And what was “the Lord’s work,” anyhow? I was convinced, since he kept going away for days at a time, he had something secretive on the side that was going to blow up in his face. But this whole aspect of his life after being featured over and over again just kind of faded out without so much as an explanation. These are only a few on the list of missing payoffs. I’ll stop now to avoid spoiling the ending. Suffice it to say that ending felt incomplete, since there were so many loose ends left, the kinds of omissions that make me feel betrayed by the author, as though she’s set me up for a payoff, leading me on, but never giving me my reward.

The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn

From the inside flap: Conceived on May Morning, Nell is claimed by the piskies and faeries as a merrybegot, one of their own. She is a wild child: herb gatherer and healer, spell-weaver and midwife… and, some say, a witch. Grace is everything Nell is not. She is the Puritan minister’s daughter: beautiful and refined, innocent and sweet-natured… to those who think they know her. But she is hiding a secret—a secret that will bring everlasting shame to her family should it ever come to light.

Overall, it was an enaging story. It definitely raised my ire, which is a good thing. I was generally happy with it, and I also found it infectious. All the same, I probably won’t be reading it again.

-TimK

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