A compelling read!
Author: Dimitrije Medenica
Although Dimitrije Medenica, author of The Good Healer refers to his work of fiction as a novel, I am inclined to classify it as a novella. Nonetheless, this in no way detracts from the fact that we have quite a yarn here that packs a wallop with its down-to-earth writing, vivid historical backdrop of the inquisition during the Middle Ages, medieval superstitions, religious persecution, history of herbal plants, medicine, healthcare architecture, and thrown in for good measure, a good love story.
Medenica's principal character, Jean Duchesne had the misfortune of being born with six fingers on his left hand and immediately was branded by the priest of the local Catholic Church as being the child of the devil. Consequently, Jean and his parents, Antonella and Guillaume were in 1411 forced to run away from their tiny hamlet in the Swiss Alps. While seeking refuge in the forest, Jean's parents die, however, Jean survives and is rescued by a strange woman who, as we shall discover, turns out to be his savior and mentor.
Readers learn more about Jean's rescuer, Marthe Grosbuffet, when the story shifts in narrative perspective and backpedals twenty years. Marthe, who was married to a wealthy merchant, Georges Grosbuffet was a healer and very passionate about medicine. Though she was not a medical doctor, she always found time to provide aid to the poor and sick. Sadly, Georges, while hunting in the forest one day, was killed by a huge boar. When word spread that Georges was dead, merchants, who had invested with him, demanded the immediate return of their funds.
It was impossible for Marthe to step into her husband's shoes, as never had a woman inherited her spouse's business, and thus, Marthe was left destitute. Luckily, however, owing to the magnanimity of one of her former servants, Marthe was granted title to a hunting hut that had belonged to her late husband.
Marthe returned to practicing healing and even managed to build a clinic, where her many patients were treated. However, Marthe encountered more bad luck during an era when the horrendous inquisition was in full bloom. Its proponents hunted anyone down considered to be a witch. And in Marthe's case, she was a prime suspect, as her occupation was sure to attract the wrath of the Catholic clergy that believed that such acts of healing were an affront to the Church of Rome and must be punished. In her case, the punishment was to be burning at the stake in full view of the town's inhabitants.
One evening, when Marthe's tormentors come to fetch her, all they find was her cat wearing a hat. After giving some thought to the situation, the religious authorities decided that the cat was indeed Marthe and they carried out their punishment of burning at the stake. However, the villagers were in for quite a shock when, believing Marthe was dead, suddenly reappears. Never before had a witch returned and as a result, they were terrified, lest she should decide to bewitch them. Consequently, these same individuals agreed to help her rebuild her clinic and do whatever she demanded of them.
Fast forward twenty years, when Marthe, while looking for combustible branches on a cold stormy winter night, comes across Jean's deceased mother and his barely alive father. The latter's last words uttered to Marthe were: “You help, you help me boy...Jean, Jean Duchesne is his name...” And thus, Jean enters into Marthe's household to become her adopted son.
Under the tutelage of Marthe, Jean becomes a healer and learns all about medicinal plants. Jean also learns about the benefits of healthcare architecture and its effects on patients. Eventually, Jean leaves the nest and seeks out greener pastures in other parts of Switzerland, which brings him into contact with some very intriguing characters. He also falls madly in love with a hypnotically attractive woman builder, Anthonia Ducastel, who, likewise, has quite a yarn to spin. In time, the lives of Jean and Anthonia become intertwined but not without being subjected to some horrendous experiences that will have some devastating repercussions.
Without being drenched in lavish prose, Medenica has done an outstanding job in bringing life to a distant sinister time. The storyline comes through poignantly with its fascinating and detailed descriptions, juxtaposing the author's research in the field of architecture with medieval history, as well as herbal pharmacology. And as for his characters, we care about them, their passions and their traumas, and we are constantly rooting for them, hoping for a happy ending.
That is not to say, however, that the book is devoid of shortcomings. For one, due to the book's brevity, I felt that the characters were half-formed and the structure of the plot half-developed. Also, from time-to-time, there is a lack of smooth transition from one part of the story to the next, this is particularly in evidence at the beginning, when we are introduced to Marthe. Notwithstanding, Medenica has still authored a compelling narrative that succeeds in maintaining the reader's interest, reminding us just how vicious was the inquisition and its far-reaching consequences.
Dimitrije Medenica is an architect who has worked on a variety of international health projects focusing on the relationship between patients and their responses to physical setting. His keen interest in Medieval/Renaissance history led him to further his studies in these areas in Europe through programs offered by the University of Virginia, Syracuse University, and Parson's School of Design. Medenica also grew up at the side of a misunderstood physician, his father.