In 1377 in the village of Duns in the northeast of England five young boys were burned to death in a house fire. It was rare then for English peasants to travel more than twenty miles from their homes but five men from the village loaded the burnt bodies of their children on a farm cart and undertook a risky 200 mile journey to London. They presented the bodies to the King and demanded justice against the Jews. Although all Jews had been killed, forcibly converted or expelled from England in 1325 it was still common for them to be blamed for tragic or malicious events.
This real life tale provides the inspiration for Sinful Folk, the author has taken the story, of which little else, including the names of any of the men is known, and written a thoughtful and absorbing medieval mystery. The main character, Mear is believed by the other villagers living in Duns to be a mute man but as readers quickly learn she is actually a former nun called Miriam who has been hiding in the village for a decade with her young son, Christian. After Christian and four other boys are burned to death in the home of Benedict, the tailor, she decides to join the other fathers on their perilous journey to London with the bodies of their dead children as they seek justice from the king.
As the story progresses we learn that Mear is not the only character with secrets and that one of the men travelling with her may be responsible for the shocking deaths of the children. Can Mear keep her own secrets, find out what happened to her son and survive the dangerous journey where her life will be threatened by the weather, lack of food, bandits and treachery? Why is she disguised as a man and what else is she hiding? What are the stories of the men who travel with her and can they be trusted?
I very much enjoyed this book, the author vividly brought to life a time when starvation, the Black Death and the brutal violence of the period meant death was a constant threat. Miriam/Mear is a strong and likeable woman and her story is absorbing if often bleak and unflinching. Although I guessed some of the plot I was still keen to find out what would happen to her and her companions and it kept me turning the pages until the last.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publishers through Netgalley, in return for my honest review.
Sinful Folk is published by Campanile Press.