Like the cautionary messages hidden in fairy tales, what begins as a desperate response to a life-threatening situation inspires a number of women in a provincial Hungarian village to do the unthinkable: to rise above years of traditional values and take their fates into their own hands.
When World War I empties the village of fighting men, the women left behind quickly acclimate to the less stressful chores of their daily lives, demanding husbands far from home. When the army leases a local estate to warehouse Italian prisoners-of-war, village women are encouraged to offer their services as cooks and laundresses.
No such volunteer work for Sari Arany, whose recently-deceased father was the village “taltos,” or healer. Engaged to Ferenc, son of the wealthiest family in the village (whose estate has been leased by the army), Sari has been training in midwifery and the healing arts thanks to the generosity of her wizened and ferocious Aunt Judit. Sari is reluctant to go to the camp since her initial visit, when she was drawn to the seductive eyes of one of the prisoners. During the long years of the war, even Sari finally yields to temptation, dreading Ferenc’s return, as do the others who have taken lovers to their beds and must return to their former lives and dreary domestic obligations.
Sari has already experienced this wrenching shock. Ferenc arrives home early having been wounded, much changed from the silent young man who left for war. A life of relative joy with Judit and her few friends is suddenly shattered by Ferenc’s drunken rages, self-disgust that fuels the brutal treatment of his fiancé. The decision Sari makes in her darkest hour affects not only the course of her life but the futures of village women, who come secretly to her door demanding she share her “power” with them.
Basing her novel on a true story, Gregson draws the reader into Sari’s conflicted world: an independent and curious young woman with a clear sense of identity and an education that sets her apart from the others. There is a sense of empowerment as Sari embraces her life-changing decision, later reduced to inevitability as survival compels her complicity with the steady stream of women who knock on her door, village secrets inevitably exposed by a lack of caution and the carelessness of overindulgence. An understandable isolated incident becomes two, then three and more as a quiet village roils with the rebellion of women too long dominated by abusive husbands, their opinions too often discounted, quiet rage running like an icy stream through their veins.
Entrenched in tradition, lacking the company of the opposite sex in wartime and far removed from the luxuries enjoyed by women living in cities, these unhappy females are ripe for their unexpected taste of freedom. Once tasted, it is not so easily relinquished, human nature predictable as ever: “Everyone’s started thinking that just finishing people off is the best way to deal with problems, but it’s not.” Gregson’s cautionary tale is all the more chilling for its basis in reality.