About one chapter into **Sinful Folk** by *Ned Hayes* I came to the conclusion that it's a darn good thing I wasn't born and reared in 1377. I'm pretty sure that before someone could say, "Where's the marshmallows?" I would have been burned at the stake as a witch. That seemed to be the fate of many during that time period. Never mind guilt nor innocence. That had nothing whatsoever to do with it. And if they couldn't get you for being a witch, they'd settle for labeling you a Jew which ranked somewhere lower than mere peasants and higher than absolutely nothing. It was a scary time in which only the strong and clever survived, and that is what made this book so good. I know very little about medieval times, and what I do know comes mainly from novels I've read where it's usually some king or other fighting people who have usually betrayed him or his family in some way. **Sinful Folk** has a few of the nobility variety around, but the main thrust of this story revolves around the peasant people who get very little if any justice, and they often get killed just because no one is there to stop anyone with a match to strike or a sword to thrust.
When the story begins, a mother is waiting for her young son to come home for the day. While she's waiting, she hears commotion and noise outside enough to alert her that something is very wrong. Because she's fearful for her son since he still has not returned home, eventually she goes outside with most of the rest of the village to see what is causing so much upheaval. That's when she sees that a house is burning, and no amount of work from the neighbors is having any effect toward getting the fire under control. She hopes her son, Christian, is helping to put out the fire. Before she left her home, she smeared soot over her face to disguise herself. At home she is a mother to Christian; to the rest of the village outside her own 4 walls, she is Mear, a mute old man. She has done this to protect herself and her son from those in her past who wish her harm. For 10 years her secret has been kept. She does odd jobs around the village and is ignored most of the time by the other villagers. But on this night, she is not thinking of her own protection. She just wants to find Christian and be sure he is safe.
The house that burned belonged to Benedict, the town's weaver. Christian was working as his apprentice. He along with 4 other boys all burned to death in the fire. Benedict was not at home when the fire started, and he is devastated to discover that one of his sons was also a victim. Upon inspection of the door to the house, Mear discovers that the door was tied shut with rope, and this rope was tied with an unusual knot unknown to everyone else in the village. Mear has seen the knot used one other time when a friend of hers was murdered with a rope tied in exactly the same knot as the one on Benedict's door. Unfortunately she does not know who tied the knot. What she does know, though, is that someone from the village is responsible for the deaths of these boys. It was no accident that they all burned to death, unable to get out of the house because of the rope holding them hostage inside the house.
All of the families of the victims are grief-stricken when they discover one of their family members was burned alive in Benedict's house. They all are of one mind in wanting justice for those who were killed. Some immediately subscribe to the idea that it must have been Jews who did this horrible act that killed their sons. Even though the Jewish population has been practically wiped out in this area, there are still those who superstitiously cling to the idea that Jews are evil and will harm anyone who gets in their way. They steadfastly cling to this notion even though no facts bear out their assumptions. Ned Hayes has done an excellent job of bringing the reader into this atmosphere of anger and heartbreak. The townspeople about whom he writes have so little in earthly possessions. All they really have is their families, and they cannot bear to lose one member without wanting someone to blame and give them retribution for their loss. Mear is especially devastated because Christian, the son born to her when she was consort to a man she believed loved both her and his son, is everything to her. Without him she sees no life for herself at all. She believed when Christian became 10 years old, his father would acknowledge him, and he would live a much better life than he ever could have had with her alone. Now all of that is gone, and Mear has no idea how she will manage to keep on living when she has ceased to have a purpose. During this time period a mute old man could not expect to have much of a life on his own; as a woman she saw no chances for herself at all.
So when the group comes up with a plan to load their burned family members on a cart and transport them roughly 200 miles to ask the King for justice for their losses, Mear decides to go with them. She has nothing else to live for, although this expedition will test everyone's endurance and strength far more than they know. There are no paved roads, so this band of stragglers will have to move their cart over stones and mud and terrain that was not made for easy travel. Since they do not have the papers necessary to prove they have the King's permission to be on this pathway, they will be wide open to thieves and bandits every step of the way with no one to protect them. In spite of these drawbacks, they all decide to make the trip anyway because they each feel they deserve to air their grievances to the King and be acknowledged for their losses.
From there the story goes on to reveal what surprises this small band of parents must go through on their journey. The hardships seem insurmountable, but they do not give up no matter how difficult their mission becomes. I thought it had about reached its lowest point when they got to the pot of rat soup. I was wrong. There are worse things than rodentia cuisine in medieval times. Much, much worse. Which is another reason why this book has so much authenticity about the time in which it was written. Ned Hayes tells it like it was, which kept me engaged in this book and the character of Mear the whole way through.
Not only would I recommend this book to readers who enjoy good mysteries, even though it seemed obvious to me early on who was responsible for the deaths of the boys, I would also recommend it for the historical view it gives the time it took place. It almost seems a miracle that anyone survived such grim, treacherous times, yet civilization did continue no matter what people had to overcome to produce another generation. That says something about the will of the human spirit, which, after all, is what **Sinful Folk** is all about. I look forward to reading more of Ned Hayes in the future. He has a distinct gift for storytelling.