Set in Germany in the fourteenth century, The Secret Healer tells the story of Madlen, a young woman with an extraordinary gift for healing, and the challenges she faces as those around her come to terms with her abilities.
Ever since she was a young teenager helping the town’s midwife, Clara, with difficult births, Madlen has known she has a gift for healing and calming down patients. All she has is an excellent knowledge of herbs and their effects, and her calming technique is nothing more than moving a candle and reciting prayers and psalms. Nonetheless, her techniques work, and when Clara is tragically killed, Madlen is called to help a weak noblewoman through a miscarriage. Despite saving the noblewoman’s life, a turn of events means Madlen is forced to leave her home town as a result of her actions.
When Madlen reaches Worms, she goes to her aunt’s house, where she begins to create a new life for herself. After her knowledge of illness and herbs save her aunt’s life, she begins to secretly help other people, despite the risks. However, the Church hears of the “miraculous healer” and her aunt forces her to stop for fear she will be prosecuted. In Worms, Madlen also learns to read and write with the help of a monk. There are lots of references throughout The Secret Healer to the difficulties women faced on a daily basis during this time, and though the abuse of women is focused on, the fact that they could not read, write, attend university, or own a business was also mentioned frequently.
When Madlen discovers that her new husband Johannes is an investigator for the Church sent to find the “miraculous healer”, Madlen’s aunt knows that she has no choice but to leave Worms. Together they leave to start a new life in another city, which brings a lot more complications to Madlen’s life. Although Madlen is portrayed as a brave young woman, she also has moments of extreme despair. The Secret Healer is excellent in showing the best and worst of people in times of crisis. People were portrayed as being weak or strong in their attitudes and actions throughout the novel, and humanity was seen at its worst and best. The relationships Madlen has with her aunt, her brother, and those around her mean the novel has a lot more feel-good moments than the story suggests. Johannes’ struggles and the choices he made were also well portrayed in the novel.
The Secret Healer didn’t go in the direction I expected it would, but it was also a better story than I had been expecting. The fact that Madlen’s gift genuinely only consisted of knowledge of herbs and a calming technique was good, and the novel provided an interesting insight into the way people lived during that time.
Ellin Carsta created a well-developed, interesting novel with The Secret Healer, and it’s well worth a read.