A NOVEL by Megan Campisi
I’ve been intrigued by the notion of sin-eaters since I saw a movie concerning the topic years ago (The Last Sin Eater, 2007). Recently, I spotted this YA historical fiction work on the theme. It’s an intriguing book with a nice murder mystery at its heart.
But what is a sin-eater? Sin-eaters are designated individuals within a community who consume ritual foods thereby taking on the sins of a deceased person. The foods symbolize (or absorb, depending on your perspective) the sins and through ingestion, the sin-eater acquires the sin thereby absolving the deceased, and paving the way for entry into heaven. Historically, the practice is associated with Wales and the English counties bordering Wales.
In the book, The Sin Eater, 14-year-old, May, is made a sin-eater after stealing a loaf of bread during the reign of Elizabeth I. Marked as a sin-eater and shunned by society, May eventually seeks out an older woman in the same situation. This woman mentors May in this hard life through example because verbal communication is forbidden. Sin-eaters are well fed and outcasts who are redeemed only upon death, having faithfully served their purpose—or so May is led to believe. Things are turned upside down when the older sin-eater refuses to consume a deer heart for a royal governess who’s died. Refusing to do so costs her life. May loses her teacher and ends up center stage in a mystery of death and intrigue involving the royal bloodline.
I enjoyed the book because it is an imaginative tale about something very little is known about. And yet, it did exist culturally, and the legacy carried on to some extent in areas including western England, Wales, Bavaria, and 17th century Dutch America. Campisi’s novel is now available in paperback.
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