Women in Exile: “Dark Earth,” by Rebecca Stott

There is nothing better than getting lost in a book. And so I was thrilled to discover Rebecca Stott’s slender, gracefully-written novel, Dark Earth, the compelling story of two Saxon sisters struggling to survive in post-Roman Britain in 500 A.D.  

In this spellbinding novel, Stott focuses on the plight of women in the Dark Ages.  Two sisters, twenty-one-year-old Isla and 17-year-old Blue, have lived with their father peacefully on an island for five years.  The camp elders banished their father, a Great Smith, after raiders torched the camp, scapegoating him for attracting the “bad spirits” by forging “fire-tongued” swords. The sisters, traumatized by the loss of their mother in the raid and their exile, realize that knowledge and skill are not valued – in fact, knowledge is dangerous for both men and women.

Despite the isolation, there  are benefits to life on an island.  Gender roles become fluid:  Isla assists their father at the forge – though it is illegal for women to enter a forge – and it must be kept secret from the men who deliver supplies to the island. But Isla worries about Blue, who has the ability to see the future – a dangerous trait – and does not try to hide it.  She is also a skilled healer with an encyclopedic knowledge of herbs.  Blue doesn’t know how to keep a low profile.

In the Dark Ages, women were in peril without male protection.  When their father dies, the sisters cannot let anyone know.  Isla finishes the sword he was making for  his patron, Lord Osric, and decides she and Blue will deliver it in person. Needless to say, the meeting does not go well.  They barely escape with their lives.

With the help of a friend, they escape to the ruins of Londinium, a mile-wide city occupied by the Romans and abandoned around 410 A.D.  A secret society of women now inhabits a corner of the city.  The utopian society instantly enthralls Blue, but Isla, who was poisoned (probably with nightshade) by Lord Osric’s son, is ill for weeks, and when she recovers she does not trust anyone. They ask her to share her knowledge of the forge, but she denies that she is a blacksmith.  Only gradually does she understand that these women share their skills.

The search for haven, or utopia, is a recurring theme. The sisters briefly lived in peace on an island, then in a utopian society of women in Londinium. But Londinium, too, is in peril, for environmental and political reasons:  the city is sinking, and Lord Osric’s people are searching for Isla and Blue. 

This entertaining novel is as well-plotted as it is beautifully- written  Excellent weekend reading!

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