The Burning Time
Kelly L. Green is editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual’s
Children’s Literature edition.
The Burning Time is a powerful, compelling historical novel about a
controversial topic and period. Following the struggle of one family in
rural France at the dawn of the 17th century, Matas re-creates the
horror and disaster, both personal and within the community, brought on
by the Roman Catholic Church’s attempt to eliminate witches. When
young Rose’s father dies, she and her mother, a healing woman and
midwife, become targets within the community. Their situation is
worsened by the fact that Rose’s mother refuses to give up the
family’s land to her dead husband’s greedy brothers, and by her
spurning the local priest’s offer of “unofficial marriage.” They
are sitting ducks for the witch-hunting judge who rides into town
Matas is uncompromising in her depiction of the horrors the women live
and die through. Rose manages to escape with her life, but has witnessed
her mother’s torture and death. The story develops logically, with
frightening reality, and never veers from a course of terrifying
plausibility. A historical note on the time, with some background on the
witch hunts and a list of historical sources, would not have gone amiss,
as many young readers may be unfamiliar with these issues and events.
Rose’s character, thoughts, and her relationships with her mother,
father, and betrothed, Raymond, occasionally strike a slightly
anachronistic note (it’s almost as if a 20th-century girl raised by a
feminist mother has been plopped into 17th-century France), but this
does not seriously detract from the novel’s compelling readability.
Matas’s prose is forceful, direct, and fairly simple; young people
with a wide range of reading skills will be able to enjoy this book. Her
graphic depictions of torture and death make the book inappropriate for
most preadolescent children. Highly recommended.