At the heart of Hannah Kent’s The Good People is the difficulty of caring for a child with severe disabilities. Raising children is hard enough, but Nóra Leahy finds herself in the position of taking care of her grandson, who can’t speak, walk, screams constantly, and needs almost round-the-clock care. Meanwhile, her husband has just died, the new priest is preaching against the local “handy woman,” and everyone else is busy taking care of their own families and farms. In her despair, Nóra begins to believe that the child in her house is a changeling and that her real grandson is living with the fairies, the Good People.
The Good People is narrated by a trio of women living in the small Irish village in County Kerry during the winter of 1825-1826. (The novel is based on an article the author found about a real case involving a changeling.) Nóra is the primary narrator, but we also hear from her hired girl, Mary, and the local handywoman (basically a hedge witch), Nance Roche. Nóra’s chapters reveal her growing depression and frustration with her grandson, Micheál. The boy suffers from a condition that might be a kind of cerebral palsy. (At least, it seems that way to a modern reader. To an uneducated Irish woman in the 1820s, however, Micheál’s condition can only be explained by the fairies.) Mary gives us an outsider’s perspective, even though she also comes from a small village herself. Mary grows increasingly fearful of her employer as Nóra tries increasingly dangerous “cures” on Micheál. When we’re in Nóra’s head, her actions make sense. When we’re in Mary’s, Nóra is volatile and possibly unhinged.
Nance Roche was the most interesting character to me. Her position at the perimeter of village life (literally and figuratively) is tenuous. She keeps herself fed and warm by treating injuries, problems, illnesses, and bad dreams. But she’s losing ground to the new priest. The priest isn’t much help with Micheál, but he is very effective at convincing the villagers that her work is superstition and un-Christian. If she can “cure” Micheál, Nance thinks, perhaps she can save herself from being cast out and ending up starving on the road. The Good People grows increasingly tense as Nance and Nóra try to “cure” Micheál and Mary tries to keep the boy from harm.
The Good People is a fascinating look at a community and characters fracturing under strain. I really enjoy books where characters who believe they are right come into conflict with each other and Nance and Nóra’s trial is a spectacular example. The women are so entrenched in their views that the lawyers’ questions might as well be in another language. Everyone in this book thinks they are right. Readers will of course have their own opinion about who is right and wrong in this book, but being able to see inside Nance, Nóra, and Mary’s heads might give us sympathy for all three women, no matter how opposed they are.