Mary Barrett Dyer was executed in 1660 for running afoul of the religious authorities in Colonial America (which, to be fair, wasn’t hard). If you know your Colonial America, you may know Mary Dyer’s name as a pioneer of religious liberty. She’s also an ancestor of writer Christy Robinson, who has spent the last several years researching the lives of Mary, her husband William Dyer, and the worlds in which they lived both in England and after emigrating to America.
This novel, which explores Mary’s early years, is as meticulously-researched a piece of historical fiction as I’ve read in a long time. It’s heavy on the history and light on the fiction in the sense that Robinson is not a writer who would knowingly contradict a historical fact or oversimplify the complex webs of colonial-era religion and politics. However, the fictional touch is required to bring the personal elements of the story to life, to flesh out Mary, William, and other people they knew (including Mary’s more-famous, but not martyred, friend Anne Hutchinson) into real people. Robinson does this skilfully, using everyday detail to, as the title suggests, illuminate a biographical sketch into the story of a vibrant and memorable human being. Reading this novel made me eager for the next volume, which will follow Mary through the later years of her life.