Ellin Carsta is as mysterious as the novels she writes. She is a successful German author who writes under various pseudonyms. My internet research was completely unsuccessful in discovering anything else about her other work…and that’s unusual for me. Normally I can find something, but not in this case.
The Secret Healer was translated into English by Terry Laster, who did an excellent job. This 14th century story flows beautifully with none of the sometimes rough spots a lesser translation might have. I was drawn to this novel because its story is one I’m always drawn to – women helping women throughout history despite often overwhelming odds and heavy prices paid. It’s also a lesson in how fear of the unknown and ignorance can lead to horrible consequences…a timely lesson, unfortunately. And at the heart of all of this is a beautifully written coming-of-age tale that is a joy to read. I hope you like it as much as I did.
Thirteen-year-old Madlen has a talent that she is forced to hide, and that grates on her. She’s been working as an apprentice to the city midwife, Clara, and Clara has cautioned her often about the consequences that can come from the work they do. Women are so grateful to them for their help in easing pregnancy and birthing complications, complications that would often kill them if not resolved; however, if things go wrong or their husbands object then those same women will quickly turn on them. Midwives and healers have died horrible deaths when things went wrong.
So why do they continue to do what they do? Clara and Madlen are natural healers and caring for people is what they feel called to do. They can’t bear to leave women’s care to the so-called doctors of the day, who would just bleed them until they die instead of healing them. They know women are considered just objects and they know the difference they can make if they can just ease women’s lives a fraction with their healing and midwifery skills. It’s what women have been doing for other women for centuries in secret, behind the scenes, when men can’t be bothered.
“’You have a beautiful son. What will you call him?’
‘Felix,’ Agnes answered, after considering the question briefly.
‘That means happy, doesn’t it?’ Madlen asked.
‘Yes,’ Agnes said. ‘It’s fitting. It’s a happy miracle that he and I survived. I’ll never forget you both, as long as I live.’
Clara smiled. Hundreds, if not thousands of women had said the same, though they didn’t seem to remember when Clara struggled to survive the harsh winter months. She looked at Madlen, whose earnest expression suggested she believed Agnes’ words. Still Clara wouldn’t say anything…Sooner or later, the thirteen-year-old would learn that women promised a lot in the afterglow of successful childbirth. But they forgot those promises just as quickly. Life was like that.”
The women’s husbands? Many of them just wanted healthy sons to carry on their name and, as a side benefit, wives who lived to bear more sons. That may sound harsh by today’s values but the 14th century was a very different time and that was how the world worked then. Not all husbands were like that but the lion’s share of marriages were business arrangements, with nothing romantic about them. Very young women’s fathers arranged those marriages to add value to their holdings and the men to whom those women were married also viewed those marriages as financial arrangements to better their station in life, and nothing more. Click here to read a dry but informative piece about Medieval German marriage laws.
After three years, Madlen has learned an enormous amount from Clara about the natural herbs to use in healing, and techniques to use to help ensure a healthy baby and mother, but she feels unprepared to take over when Clara is accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Clara’s tragic and senseless death makes the risks they take suddenly real. Can Madlen find the courage to continue, knowing she could meet the same fate or an even worse one? She realizes quickly that she will have to because no one else can help the women in their city…she is already committed to her path and can only hope she has learned enough to do what she must do.
And then she is called upon to help the wife of a man who she’s certain is severely physically abusing her. In fact, Madlen can’t believe the woman is still alive – and she’s about to give birth. Madlen can’t stand by and let this woman die from the injuries she’s received; however, she fears those injuries will kill not just the baby, who she believes has not survived, but the mother as well even if she uses all of her skills…but she has to try.
As feared, the woman’s infant son is dead from the woman’s latest beating. Madlen comes close to losing the woman as well but manages to save her. What she had not fully comprehended, however, was what the woman’s abusive yet highly ambitious husband would do in retaliation for her not saving the son he had, in effect, killed.
Madlen finds herself arrested and charged with witchcraft and infanticide, astonishingly enough – and that’s just the beginning. When she manages, with the help of an enlightened legal advocate, to escape those charges, things get even worse – the stuff of a healer’s nightmares. It’s a good thing Madlen has a backbone of steel under her soft, caring exterior because she’s going to need it if she’s to survive this ordeal.
She has to flee her city with her brother’s help and hope a paternal aunt will take her in and hide her from the woman’s vicious husband, who is determined to make her not only his scapegoat but the successful prosecution he needs to distract from his own foul deeds and to leap frog him into power in their city. It seems he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
And Madlen has the misfortune to fall head over heels for Johannes, a man who is not who he seems. Now they both have secrets that, if uncovered, could spell Madlen’s doom.
Madlen may be only thirteen years old when this story begins; however, that age in the 14th century was not what it is today. Girls younger than her were married off to “elderly” men and began bearing children as soon as they were physically capable. Many people did not live beyond their mid-thirties, if that long. Could a thirteen-year-old make the kind of informed decisions needed by adults in the 14th century? I seriously doubt it, but they had no choice. Madlen is a wonderful character who I was drawn to immediately. She’s a strong, intelligent girl living in a superstition-riddled time when those were probably the characteristics most likely to get you killed by fear-filled neighbors. That she persists despite pretty overwhelming odds was inspiring even as it kept me biting my nails. The villains range from the ill-informed, misled, fearful and manipulated to the vicious…ugh.
Ellin Carsta has written in The Secret Healer a story that is both historical and timeless…and her writing is so excellent that it transports you back in time instantly. We’d like to think our 21st century world has moved far beyond the superstitions and fears of the 14th century but, unfortunately, we keep getting reminders that we are apparently doomed to repeat history when we forget it. I think every woman can relate to some extent to who Madlen is and/or the trials she goes through, whether or not they’ve been through things even remotely similar. Abuse has certainly not disappeared from the world and we all have at least 1-2 war stories about paternal attitudes, even if they aren’t as extreme or entrenched as they were in the 14th century.
I picked this novel up thinking I’d read it a bit at a time – nope, I plowed through it in one day because I couldn’t put it down. I was Madlen’s biggest cheerleader and I think you will be too.
Can’t wait to read it? The Secret Healer is available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller. Just click on the link below and you can have it to read immediately!
I’d love to get your comments on The Secret Healer, Ellin Carsta (or any of her other pseudonyms) and/or her other work, and/or this review.