Still in the 17th century, I turned to Canadian novelist Beth Powning’s novel about early American martyr Mary Dyer. I’ve already read one novel about Dyer, Mary Dyer: Illuminated by my friend (and real-life Dyer descendant) Christy K. Robinson, who probably knows as much about Mary Dyer as any one alive. Powning’s novel takes a more literary and less historical approach to the story, but still hews pretty closely to the historical facts so far as we know them (though filling in many gaps that are not known to history).
The fundamental problem with writing an engaging novel about Mary Dyer is that while she did something absolutely admirable and fascinating for a woman of her time — deliberately committing civil disobedience and choosing to die a martyr’s death as a form of protest against a brutal theocracy — many of the same qualities that made her admirable also make her difficult for the modern reader to identify with. To Powning’s credit, she leans hard into this “unlikeable female protagonist” issue rather than trying to soften Mary’s character or make her more “relatable.” In Powning’s portrait, as Mary grows closer to God, she also becomes more distant from her husband and children, less bound by wordly ties. She may not be likeable, but Mary Dyer is never less than memorable in this re-telling of her story.