Friday, December 21, 2001

The Sword Of Truth: King Henry VIII's England

Gilbert Morris' The Sword of Truth, the first in the Wakefield Dynasty series, gives a wonderful picture of life in England in the early 16th century, amid the turmoil of King Henry VIII. Divided into four parts, the book tells the life of Myles Morgan (Wakefield), from his early childhood starting in 1513 to adult with young family of his own at the book's end in 1534. Along the way, Myles experiences life as a serf, working the land as a commoner, later coming into his inheritance as the only son of Lord Richard Wakefield and the new ways of nobility.

The Sword of Truth involves actually two great historical accounts, both that of King Henry the 8th and his court as well as the concurrent story of William Tyndale and his efforts to bring an English Bible to the people of England, amidst great persecution in these years of the Protestant Reformation. At times Myles has connections with King Henry, enjoying hunting parties with the king and other nobles as well as conversations with the unhappy Queen Catherine. Yet throughout the book he remains a friend of William Tyndale, whom he first meets while a peasant boy. He later helps Tyndale (for whom the book publishing company is named, which this book is published by) in his work, traveling between England and the European continent, and sees Tyndale's goal accomplished: "the day when every plowboy would read the Word of God for himself."

The book begins with young Margred Morgan, who, facing a desperate situation in Wales, takes her then 6-year-old son with her on a perilous journey over the mountains into England. Despite the travails of winter traveling, they safely reach England and find a home and employment as serfs working Sir Bourneville's estate. The life of the servant is not unpleasant, but everyone knows his place, including those who caution the sometimes angry young Myles. For even when women peasants are violated, or a boy from a higher social class is at fault, the serfs receive all the blame and punishment. Though most of the book's more developed characters are of the higher classes, one strong peasant character is Nob, a likeable man who cares for his masters' hawks and falcons.

Even as one of the workers, though, Myles finds company instead in a girl his age, Hannah Kemp, of the middle-class English; and Isabella, Lord Bourneville's flighty daughter a few years older than Myles, becomes a romantic infatuation, though seemingly out of reach. Enter Sir Robert Wakefield and his wife, Lady Jane, who have no children--until Robert learns of his son, Myles, now 16 years old. Immediately Myles is accepted and given legal status as a Wakefield, and begins an intense education in haste, catching up on the years of proper schooling he has missed.

The significant women in Myles' life--mother Margred, Hannah Kemp, and Lady Jane Wakefield--all exhibit the characteristics of quiet and peaceful godly women, with Protestant sympathies. Hannah and Jane have connections with William Tyndale, as Hannah's childhood tutor and a corresponding friend for Lady Jane, and the two women naturally become good friends. Tyndale in turn tells of his meetings with Martin Luther in these early years of the Protestant Reformation.

The world and its allure, and especially the worldly Isabella, ever tempts Myles, who continually spends more and more time "at court," vowing to Hannah that the court and its blatant immorality will not taint him. But will he be able to share its company and not be corrupted? Indeed, Henry's court is one of the worst, if not the most corrupt, England has yet seen. Soon Henry's excesses become common knowledge throughout England and even the rest of Europe, as "the King's Great Business" (of his desired divorce from Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn) is gossiped among women and discussed at the bars.

Many of King Henry's actual associates (some of whom were later executed by him), including Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and of course Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, are featured throughout the story, interacting with Myles and other fictional characters. Myles also encounters the clever and power-hungry Ralph Geddes, who resents Myles for taking the Wakefield inheritance, which would otherwise have been his. Through a great rags-to-riches story filled with romance and persecution, Gilbert Morris adeptly introduces the reader to this turbulent time period, with great background of worldwide events of the early 1500s.

Thursday, December 6, 2001

While Mortals Sleep: Christians in Nazi Germany

Jack Cavanaugh’s While Mortals Sleep, the first book in the "Songs in the Night" series, introduces a German pastor and his community—Berlin, Germany in 1940. Josef Schumacher preaches at the church his father-in-law once led. Wife Mady is expecting their first child, and the young couple often hosts the church’s young people at their home.
Like many pastors, Josef finds that the church youth are distracted by other things. In this case, the Nazi youth clubs take preference, and Josef faces a losing battle for their hearts and minds. Josef struggles with his conscience, against the temptation to compromise, to get along and be liked by the people in his new congregation. Others around him—even his wife and father-in-law—advise taking the easy road. When he attends the Fuhrer’s birthday party celebration, he too feels the surge of patriotism, a resurgent National Pride for Germany and its charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler.

An outburst at church against the Nazi-decreed "Heil Hitler" salute only earns Josef a trip to Gestapo headquarters. Nobody at church will speak up for a fellow member of Jewish descent, even when the man is found dead. A boy reports his father to the Nazis: for possession of a radio tuned to the BBC. Christmas party merriment stops when the participants realize that the Christmas music they listened to came from a BBC broadcast. The German people live in fear, outwardly succumbing to the Nazi pressures, inwardly fearing betrayal, in a hate-filled world that divides child against parent, wife against husband, and son-in-law against father-in-law.

When Josef mentions Martin Luther in a sermon, he receives a cryptic note: "If you are indeed a friend of Luther, use the word Bulwark in a sermon and you will be contacted." Will Josef respond, and how? Life as a spy, taking on daring rescue missions, awaits him, and meanwhile Mady is about to give birth to their child.

Throughout the story, Josef and Mady's personal life is impacted, revealing their true natures. Josef's desire for action and helping others, contrasted against Mady's wish for a normal, "proper" and respectable life as a pastor's wife, threatens to pull the couple apart. A meddling parent complicates the situation. Yet perhaps the old saying "absence makes the heart grow fonder" will apply to them as well.

Through While Mortals Sleep we experience Nazi Germany's T-4 project, the horrors of the Hadamar facility that practiced euthanasia and experiments on humans. By 1940, Germany had started the project to kill those of their own people "not worthy to live," including physically handicapped and mentally retarded children. As mentioned in the book, T-4 referred to the address on Tiergraaten Strasse (check spelling). The actual project started in 1940 and continued for several years.

Much is also said, both good and bad, of Martin Luther, the renowned German reformer. His great hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" is quoted by the characters with special attention given to the second line of that first verse: "a bulwark never failing." Yet at the same time, as pointed out by a Nazi youth, Martin Luther also wrote very anti-Semitic things, advocating harm against Jews; and indeed the Nazis quoted these words of Luther in their campaign against the Jews.

The exciting story of Josef and his fellow Germans takes place during one year, sandwiched between the Christmas of 1939 and Christmas of 1940. A prologue relating the events of late 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, provides relevance to our generation along with a few clues to later events in the story.

Saturday, December 1, 2001

Hidden Places: A Farm Family During the Great Depression

Hidden Places, a historical fiction novel by Lynn Austin, vividly relates the struggles and hidden secrets of a farm family in the early 1930s. Eliza Wyatt, recently widowed with three young children, finds herself in charge of the Wyatt family orchard. Though embittered against God, she has followed the advice of her late husband's Aunt "Batty" to pray for an angel-and it seems God has brought such a messenger, someone to help with the difficult work. Yet the stranger, Gabriel Harper, seems to be less than forthright about himself and his past.

Everyone in the Deer Springs community is struggling, with land and farming equipment selling for pennies. Hobos ride the railroads and trespass on people's land, often begging for a meal in exchange for work. The local bank is closing, requiring all mortgages to be paid in full, including a loan on the Wyatt Orchard. To make matters worse, Eliza soon learns that she and her children do not even have legal ownership of the farm. Her husband Sam died before his father, and Frank Wyatt's will has left everything to his oldest son, Matthew. However, no one has seen Matthew in over ten years, since the Great War.

Eliza takes in the stranger, Gabe, who shows up at her doorstep, then nurses him through a bad "lockjaw" infection. Meanwhile, neighboring Aunt Batty (Betty, who sometimes seems crazy, or "batty") must move into the farmhouse when her roof collapses under the weight of snow, and she brings her half-blind ugly dog and fat cats with her, to add to the hectic madhouse. Aunt Batty's high-spirited joy uplifts the others, for added comic relief, though Eliza amusingly wonders if her children will become as crazy as Aunt Batty.

Eliza is determined to hold onto the orchard, for her children's sake. But that means keeping the farm going, while coming up with $500 and solving the mystery of Matthew Wyatt's whereabouts. Eliza soon discovers the family's dark secrets, while struggling inside with her own secret past, her own lies.

Through first person narratives, alternating between Eliza and Aunt Batty, comes an enriching story with strong characters and plot twists. Though many of the events takes place in the characters' past, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the issues are controversial, serious ones even by today's standards: children conceived out of wedlock; child abuse; attempted murder/suicide; even apparent identity theft. A family situation pulled straight from the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers yields a similarly tragic result. Several characters deal with anger towards their fathers, yet can now hope for reconciliation.

Yet Hidden Places is not merely an emotional "soap opera" devoid of day-to-day troubles. The story also provides rich detail of the everyday working life of farmers, by an author clearly familiar with work. In the late winter, Eliza learns how to properly prune the fruit trees: to cut the newer branches "that take energy away from the fruit-bearing limbs," to open up the tree's center and allow light through to help ripen the fruit. Gabe sharpens the saw blades, operates a grindstone, and arranges for nearby hobos to carry off the larger pieces of brush for their bonfires. Later, when the radio announces a freeze warning, the whole family--even the youngest child, four year-old Becky--pitches in to make "smudge pots" with oil and corn cobs to keep the trees warm, staying up all night to replenish the oil as needed. A full year's work includes taking produce to market to get the best price, as well as various stages of harvest (first the cherries, later the peaches, pears and apples) for which temporary workers are hired; followed by canning the many fruits and vegetables for the winter ahead. Many conversations take place in the midst of work, as the characters get to know each other better, each becoming part of a smooth-running team operating in perfect symmetry.

Through the unfolding story, the Wyatt characters come alive to the reader, taking on their own identity as we relate to their problems, their hopes and dreams. Eliza and her family and friends remind us again of the importance of family and a place to call home.

For further information. see Lynn Austin's website

Saturday, November 10, 2001

The Dark Sun Rises: Slavery and Education in the Antebellum South

Denise Williamson's historical novel, The Dark Sun Rises, takes on the dark period of American history, of slavery in the South. Set in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1830s, this first book in the "Roots of Faith" series chronicles the story of a young African slave, Joseph. The favored manservant of plantation owner Abram Callcott, Joseph has secretly learned how to read, something forbidden for slaves. When Abram's son Brant discovers the secret, he tries to silence Joseph, and nearly kills him.

Abram Callcott practices his Christian faith through benevolent slave management. A member of "The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to Africans," he practices daily prayer and devotions with his slaves, and has converted and trained some Africans to minister to their fellow bondsmen. Yet when Abram learns that Joseph can read, he is challenged to consider how capable Africans really are. He soon takes on the challenge, sending Joseph to school for a year. Through Joseph's experiences at the plantation as well as in Charleston, Abram's eyes are opened even more to understand and recognize Joseph as more than a "boy" house servant.

Contrasted with the benevolent plantation owner, the neighboring Rensler family evokes the stereotypical white, racist, southern slave owners. Teddy Rensler, head of the Parish Patrol (the rural "police" for slaves), shows only excessive cruelty to blacks, who he regards as on the same level as animals. His cruelty goes beyond the imaginable, to include raping a mulatto (mixed-race) woman and plotting murder (to look like suicide) against a Negro man.

Nathan Gilman and his daughter Felicia, visiting from Boston, portray northern Christians, ever concerned for the plight of the slaves and insisting that they be treated as decent human beings. Curiously, it is a southern man--Colonel Rensler, Teddy's uncle--that views religion as man-centered and helpful for the less-enlightened. Yet during this historical period it was in fact the Northerners that embraced new religious ideas, such as Unitarianism, while Southerners, less influenced by commerce and immigrants, retained traditional beliefs.

Yet the story is primarily Joseph's, as he endures great hardship and persecution. Throughout the events of about a year and a half, Joseph yearns for education, and, inevitably, freedom. In Charleston he studies under the historical figure of Daniel Alexander Payne, a free colored man who taught other Africans at his school in Charleston. As the white population understands (and fears), education brings a greater desire for freedom; accordingly Charleston passes laws banning all schools for colored people. The Dark Sun Rises also tells of the many laws restricting Negroes. They must wear a numbered badge and be registered with the city clerk, who requires a complete description of a slave's physical characteristics, even any branding marks. Colored people must obey a strict curfew, and can be detained and arrested for seemingly any cause, as can those helping them escape. Abolitionists caught by the authorities are tarred and feathered.

Through Joseph we see the plight of Charleston slaves, and the abolitionists who help them escape. Since Charleston is a seaport, slaves use the shipping system, rather than the infamous "Underground Railroad," to effect their escape north. At least some of the northern ships, which come down for economic reasons, have captains sympathetic to the slaves' cause. Literacy again plays a role in the cause of freedom. As the slave Luck explains to Joseph, if they know how to read and recognize a ship's name, and read the printed ship schedules, they can find the ship captains who will help them escape.

Abram's son Brant, of the younger generation coming into his plantation inheritance, encounters the many obstacles against the benevolent slave owners. At first easily swayed by Rensler's ideas, he seems inept and unsure of himself. Brant matures during the story, from the wavering boy who cannot wholly agree with either his father or Teddy Rensler, to a competent plantation owner fully convinced of his duties as a benevolent slave master caring for his workers. Along the way he deals with his dislike of slaves, considering other possible occupations to which he might be better suited. Through Brant the author explores the economic and social realities of the time. White southerners without land are dependent on wages from an outside employer, subject to the uncertainties of the economy and at the mercy of another. Land seems a much more secure way to make a living. Brant also observes that Northern employers exploit their poor workers, paying them subsistence wages yet not providing any of their housing, food, clothing or other basic needs, in contrast to the slave system.

The novel's historical situation especially follows the actual events in Charleston from 1834 to 1835, when indeed the Charleston legislature passed a new law to ban the education of slaves. Daniel Payne (1811-1893), who later became a bishop to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founder/president of Wilberforce University, and the first black president of an American college, was forced to close his school.

In this brilliant work of fiction, Denise Williamson brings a heartwarming story about ordinary people, with great attention to the many slaves of the Calcott's Delora Plantation and the slaves of the nearby Rensler plantation. Joseph, Rosa, and so many other characters go through many hardships, yet find faith in God. The Dark Sun Rises shows the great struggle for freedom and education, as well as the struggles of Christian, benevolent Plantation owners against the hatred of a society that would harm even their Negro charges.

Thursday, November 1, 2001

The Meeting Place: Colonial Canada

The Meeting Place, the first in Janette Oke and T. Davis Bunn's "Song of Acadia" series, brings to life the days of eighteenth century Canada. In what is now Nova Scotia, French settlers have lived peacefully for over 100 years, in this place they call "Acadia." Years later the English settled nearby, and the European settlers brought with them their feuds from Europe. Though the French and English settlers live within a few miles of each other, neither side communicates with the other, never opening up their world to meet "the enemy."

Set during Acadia of the 1750s, in which the European war between England and France carried over to the frontier, The Meeting Place is primarily a story of relationships and love. Much of the book follows the ordinary lives of two families, one French and one English, and how they meet and come to love each other. Though they have hints and anxious thoughts about the future, about a possible war, life seems to go on peacefully enough for both sides.

Eighteen year old Catherine (Price) Harrow meets a young French woman her age, in a lovely meadow between the two villages. Catherine's study of French years ago finds practical purpose: that she can communicate with the French. Louise (Belleveau) Robichaud and her husband Henri, it turns out, got married the same day as Catherine and Andrew. The two women later experience childbirth at about the same time, and along the way discover many other common interests, including a growing relationship with God through reading The Bible.

Many of the French settlers in Canada, such as in the Montreal area, were of course Catholic. Yet some of the French Huguenots, Protestants, survived the slaughter in France and fled to the New World, settling in areas such as Nova Scotia. Thus The Meeting Place focuses on people with like faith from different countries, rather than deal with the possible Protestant-Catholic conflict. The French Huguenot settlers at Minas are also pacifist, wishing to be left alone; and they refuse to take up arms to defend any government. Unfortunately, the British will only accept the French settlers as friends if they sign such an agreement, pledging their allegiance to the crown of England.

Complicating the immediate situation, Catherine's husband Andrew is a commandant in the British military, in charge of Fort Edward. Andrew already recognizes the French as peaceful people, not the enemy, but holds such thoughts alone among his military peers. Through his wife's friendship with Louise and her family, Andrew finds himself pressed even harder by a military set against those he considers friends.

The Acadian expulsion (1755-1762) in which thousands of French settlers were forced from their homes and literally scattered across the world, separated from each other, occurs near the end of The Meeting Place, setting the groundwork for the story's sequel, The Sacred Shore. As actually happened, the French settlers are loaded onto ships bound for other places where "Frenchies" live, including New Orleans, Charleston, Boston, even back to France; scattered, the English say, so they won't regroup and fight back.

Other books in the "Song of Acadia" series:
  • The Sacred Shore
  • The Birthright
  • The Distant Beacon
Janette Oke website


Monday, October 15, 2001

Of Men and Of Angels: Ireland of the 1840s

Of Men and Of Angels, the second book in Bodie and Brock Thoene's Galway Chronicles series, continues the story of Ireland's tenant farmers in the early 1840s, a time of conflict between the ruling English and the subjugated Irish. The first book, Only the River Runs Free, introduces the people of Ballynockanor, Galway County, Ireland, and especially the Donovan family. Joseph Connor Burke, the true heir to the Burke land estates, was believed dead at the hands of his wicked Uncle Marlowe, who killed Joseph's father and usurped his power. But in 1842 he returns to his home of Ballynockanor, and by the end of Only the River Runs Free has been established as the rightful heir. Now, with a more benevolent landowner, the people of Ballynockanor have a better year in store for them. Or so they think.

But as this second book unfolds, 1843 has just as many problems of its own, another year with its own sorrows and troubles. The story picks up immediately where Only the River Runs Free ended; the Galway Chronicles should definitely be read in sequence to more readily understand the story and characters. Kevin Donovan is about to leave for America -- his punishment for his actions against the Marlowes in the previous book. All of Ballynockanor gathers for Kevin's American Wake, a great goodbye celebration. Anyone going to far away America might as well be dying, since nobody expects to ever see him again.

Kevin soon leaves, and life goes on for the rest of the community. Joseph reduces the rent and allows payment at a pavilion on the Burke estate, a friendlier atmosphere than Marlowe's. He starts up his school for the Irish children -- sparing them the terrible English National School -- in his mansion, and even hires Mad Molly as one of his servants. A wet nurse tends Bridget's infant son, Tomeen, now Joseph's child, and the gossip around town is that Joseph really is little Tom's father.

Historical figure Daniel O'Connell (1775 - 1847), an Irish politician, takes a more prominent role in this story, as the "Great Liberator" presses for Repeal of the Union with England. By the hundreds of thousands, the Irish tenants from all over Ireland gather at rallies, to hear O'Connell proclaim freedom. Over 40 such "monster" rallies in fact took place in 1843, including the Tara rally featured in the story, and many such rallies brought in crowds over 100,000. As also featured in this story, when the British troops came out to oppose the gathering at Clontarf that October, O'Connell, pledged to non-violence, acquiesced and sent the people home.

Yet opposition comes from the English ruling class, who would love to see an "Ireland without the Irish." Spies infiltrate O'Connell's campaign, trying to push the Repeal Movement to violence so as to charge O'Connell with sedition and treason. Joseph, too, as a supporter of Repeal, finds himself targeted and narrowly escapes death many times. Can he trust even his own servants in his household?

Of Men and Of Angels, like the first book, also portrays the lives of ordinary Irish Catholic peasants. They are indeed poor, uneducated, and very superstitious. From this story we learn that bread made from flour and ground-up, pulverized frogs, was thought to ward off the fever on a long sea voyage. Also, possession of a newborn baby's caul would prevent drowning.

Interesting facts about the dreaded smallpox are brought out as well. Though smallpox vaccination had been around for about 40 years, only the wealthy and educated had received the inoculation. Dairy farmers never caught smallpox because they contracted cowpox, a lesser form of the related disease. Thus, as Edward Jenner had discovered years earlier and the Ballynockanor people learn from a Tinker (O'Neill), infection with cowpox saves people from catching the deadlier smallpox.

Understood by the characters is the long history of Ireland: the 800 plus years since King Brian was killed, also the long reign of the Burke family. The book's prologue describes the fateful day in early Ireland, the year 1014, when King Brian Boru, son and grandson were slain in battle against the Vikings, betrayed by a man named O'Toole. Mad Molly in particular treasures the old stories, often confusing the present day people and places with those of long ago. Yet through her madness she demonstrates knowledge of spiritual things unseen by the others: of the presence of angels, even the nature of other men, as to whether they be good or evil. Molly and the others of Ballynockanor are all part of the Irish heritage, and this story provides an exciting story of ordinary people in troubled times.

Saturday, October 13, 2001

Ashes and Ice: the Yukon Quest continues

Tracie Peterson’s "Yukon Quest" historical fiction trilogy continues with the second installment, Ashes and Ice. Settled in 1898 Alaska, Karen Pierce quickly faces many tragedies that threaten to turn her from God. Soon comparing herself to Job, Karen turns an angry face towards God for allowing all the sorrows that have come upon her. Through her dark experiences, literally from Ashes to Ice, Karen must learn forgiveness, trusting in the sovereignty of God and His justice.

Grace and Peter Colton have settled in San Francisco near Peter’s parents and sister. Yet being unequally yoked, conflict soon disrupts their marriage; Peter wants nothing to do with God. Martin Paxton remains more in the background, but his influence is far from over. His evil deeds still live on in the memories of those he has hurt, driving them to bitterness, suspicion and vengeance.

Faced with the care of two abandoned children, Karen finds she cannot easily return to the States, especially when one of the children departs to the north. She finds nothing to keep her waiting in Skagway, and Adrik Ivankov agrees to accompany the party north towards Dawson (in northern Canada). Introduced in the previous novel, Adrik helps bring healing and order to Karen’s chaotic world. But will she understand and accept his love for her?

In the background, and seemingly very far away, are the world events of 1898, most notable of which is the Spanish-American War, including brief mention of what happened to the Maine. Of course, the immediate surroundings are more pressing for the group traveling along the Chilkoot Trail north through the Yukon. Ashes and Ice mentions several towns, including Lindeman, Bennett, Whitehorse, and Dawson. Among the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people who traveled along this path during the Gold Rush (1896-1899), Adrik and company face the many historical problems along the way, including the dangers of navigating the Yukon River and scaling steep mountains. The mountains prove easier to pass during the winter, over hard-packed snow and ice steps, than in the soggy summer. Due to the Gold Rush Stampeders, trees for good boat-building are scarce, and medicine is even scarcer. The Canadian government required each person to carry a year’s supply of food with them, but other supplies needed come at outrageous costs: a dozen eggs for $25, two eggs for $1, a pint of whiskey for ten dollars.

As with Treasures of the North, this second story also ends with many questions and problems, leaving the reader hanging for the third part (to be published in February 2002). Having read this far, I eagerly await the concluding story.

Saturday, October 6, 2001

Treasures of the North: Adventures in the Yukon

Adventure and romance amidst the Yukon Gold Rush: so begins the "Yukon Quest" historical fiction book series. Tracie Peterson fans new and old will enjoy reading her latest offering, a story told in three parts beginning with Treasures of the North.

In 1897 Chicago, 20-year-old Grace Hawkins must marry Martin Paxton at her father's insistence. Yet she soon finds the man, who is blackmailing her father, unbearable. In desperation, she accepts help from her high-spirited governess, Karen Pierce, in a daring escape. Leaving behind the only world she has known, Grace soon finds excitement and freedom in the Yukon.

While men stream to the West Coast, seeking passage to the rumored gold up north, many business men find an easier way to riches: through the ships and other goods required by gold diggers. Peter Colton sees the perfect opportunity to expand his family's fledgling shipping company, and is soon offering passage to Yukon-bound travelers. Soon Peter meets Grace and her determined companions, who travel on his ship Merry Maid to Skagway, Alaska.

Martin Paxton is a two-dimensional, pure evil antagonist with no redemptive or realistic features, and finds himself easily outwitted by the women he seeks to destroy. Grace Hawkins, his primary target, soon falls in love with Peter Colton, and blossoms under both her newfound freedom and Peter's attention. The Paxton / Grace Hawkins plot quickly comes to resemble a melodrama with its classic elements of bad guy forever plotting to destroy the damsel in distress, with the good guy (and, in this case, clever women as well) coming to the rescue. Or so it seems in this first part of the "Yukon Quest" story.

Treasures of the North actually involves three plotlines, and soon the story changes gears to expand Karen's role. First seen as an arrogant, flippant feminist, Karen develops into a mature woman as she takes on the care of two abandoned children while concerned for her missionary father.

The historical background includes interesting details about the gold-rush towns of Skagway and Dyea, Alaska and the steam ships that traveled to these locations. The country had recently suffered an economic downturn with the silver panic of 1893, and Bill Barringer, with his children Jacob and Leah, have gone from riches to rags as a result. Yet now the lure of gold in the Yukon causes men such as Barringer, now widowed and living in a small cabin in Colorado, to bring along his two children and take foolish chances in the land of the midnight sun. Other historical details include the Canadian government's regulations as well as slang words such as "Cheechakos" (the newcomer gold-rushers) and "Sour Doughs" (old timers). The Tlingit Indians, though never met directly, are mentioned briefly as being those among whom Karen's father has worked as a missionary. Much of the story's action takes place in Skagway, a mere tent city with only a few wooden dwellings. Yet the town is constantly growing; indeed, by wintertime, when the women have only lived there about four months, Skagway has grown three times in size.

Treasures of the North is the first of three parts in the same story; Ashes and Ice continues the story, with the conclusion, Rivers of Gold, scheduled for publication in February 2002. While bringing a great deal of action suspense near the end of the first book, the ending only marks a transition in the lives of some characters without satisfactory closure. Fortunately, the second book has already been published, so readers can quickly get to the next chapter of the continuing saga.

Saturday, September 22, 2001

Highland Hopes: The Blue Ridge Legacy

Highland Hopes, first in the Blue Ridge Legacy series, begins a story told by 100-year-old Abigail Porter of her early years. Written by Gary E. Parker (published by Bethany House), this historical fiction novel tells an intriguing story about the highlanders, those who lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the early 1900s. It is a hard life, and those who live it are well acquainted with death, poverty, alcohol, crime and family feuding.

The Porter family faces tragedy in the spring of 1900, when Rose dies in childbirth. Solomon Porter can never get over the loss of his wife, nor come to terms with his only daughter born in the midst of that loss. Abby Porter grows up feeling alienated from her father and yearns to leave her mountain past behind. Yet despite her urge to tear away from the past, she finds she can never truly escape her highlander heritage.

Spanning nearly thirty years, from 1900 to 1929, Highland Hopes follows the experiences of the Porter family as they move from place to place and then later go their own ways, losing touch with family members. Solomon soon remarries, but Elsa Clack seems to be the only decent member of the Clack family. Meanwhile, Laban, the oldest Porter son, struggles with alcohol and gambling. Luke is slow in the head but gifted musically. His skill as a guitar player more than compensates for his stutter and mental deficiencies. Youngest son Daniel (eight years older than Abby), proves to be a diligent worker and moves up in the world as a hard-working bricklayer in Asheville, North Carolina. Abby determines to get an education early on, and through her harsh upbringing she quickly grows up, reasoning with adult thoughts as early as age ten.

Blue Springs, North Carolina is a small town that only slowly and unwillingly moves into the twentieth century. Progress does not completely escape the holler, and the first World War and the 1918 flu take their toll, but the town and its people continue along, finding faith in God, family, and small-town life. The town’s two churches, a Primitive Baptist at one end of town and the Jesus Holiness Church at the other, meet alternating Sundays each month, and church meetings that last several days are important social events.

The religion of the Blue Springs community tends to the charismatic side, with emphasis on unusual physical manifestations ("touch of the Spirit’s breath") that accompany a person’s salvation experience. Young Abby observes that everyone else in the family has experienced the Spirit’s call and has given testimony at the front of the church. It seems to be expected of all family members as a rite of passage. Solomon Porter calls himself a "Jesus Man" and enjoys hearing the Bible read to him (he can’t read). Abby likewise knows the right and proper Christian way to behave and think, often chiding herself for her wicked thoughts, knowing that "a true Christian person" would not think such things.

Abby’s mother, as she lay dying, wrote a short letter to her newborn daughter, to be given to Abby when she is older. Yet as the family moves from place to place, the letter is misplaced, resurfacing from time to time, but finally seeming to disappear. This letter, and the mystery of what it says, acts as a bridge between Abby and her past. What is in the letter? Does the letter even exist anymore, and will it help Abby?

Highland Hopes tells a touching story about ordinary people and their relationships through the years, against the historical backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains highlanders. Abby in particular must come to terms with her distant father and try to reconcile with him. The story brings finality and closure to some problems while leaving several other issues unresolved, presumably to be explored in subsequent books in the Blue Ridge Legacy series.

Saturday, September 8, 2001

The Swan House: Early 1960s Atlanta

Elizabeth Musser's new book, The Swan House, introduces Mary Swan Middleton, a sixteen-year-old girl growing up in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1960s. Mary Swan has enjoyed a privileged life in the ritzy Buck Head section of town, with all the advantages of wealth including private girls' prep school, society dinners and dances, and a black maid to keep the house in order. Yet in this coming of age story, Mary finds her life torn apart by tragedy and a struggle to bring meaning to her life.

The historical account of the 1962 Paris plane crash, in which over a hundred Atlantans returning from an art tour perished, sets the stage. Mary's mother was on the plane, and the accident sends Mary's world tumbling. When Ella Mae, the family's black maid, suggests that Mary help out others as a way to overcome her depression, Mary discovers a whole new world on the other side of town. Grant Park is a rough, inner-city neighborhood, where every Saturday Mt. Carmel church serves spaghetti lunches to the poor. Yet Carl Matthews, a streetwise black teen, has something that Mary doesn't have. From him and the other blacks in Grant Park she finds both poverty and love, including God's love that goes beyond prejudice.

A school dare, a mystery that Mary must try to solve during the school year, drives the story along. In the process, Mary uncovers the truth about her mother, an artist who suffered from depression. At the same time she encounters the world around her, a world of racial prejudice as well as the hypocrisy and superficiality of the wealthy world. Through Carl Matthews and best friend Rachel Abrams comes discrimination against blacks and Jews respectively. Even Mary's boyfriend Robbie, from a "good family," chafes at the restrictions and high expectations placed on him by his father.

In this turbulent time of the Civil Rights movement, Carl and his friends follow the news of the day, including the incident at University of Mississippi that year, when a black student registers at the all-white school despite the protests. At various times in the story, Carl and his friends attend Civil Rights meetings, are beat up by whites while leaving church, and perform as a band for the "fancy white clubs" in Buck Head.

Part-child, part confused adolescent, Mary Swan enjoys reciting classical poetry and "corrupting" poems with silly rhyming lines, staying up late playing poetry trivia with Rachel. She also eagerly joins her 13-year-old brother Jimmy in schemes to keep rich women (who only want his money) away from daddy, while longing for a closer relationship to her busy and aloof daddy.

Other interesting characters include Miss Abigail, the Christian woman who gave up her wealthy life to live and work in the inner-city, first in Detroit and now Atlanta. Through association with her, Mary learns of the generous help that other wealthy ladies have given to Grant Park, and discovers the reason for Miss Abigail's joy. The Middleton's next door neighbor Trixie also helps out the family, having been close friends with Mary's mother and now someone that Mary can turn to.

The author grew up in Atlanta and currently works as a missionary in France; The Swan House provides a strong background of both places. Coca-Cola and its Atlanta legacy is here, as is the higher society of art appreciation, the influential Atlantans who would bring greater art and culture to the city; also Georgia Tech football games. Many prominent locations are actual historic places in Atlanta, including the Swan House (now open to tours), the High Museum (now part of the Woodruff museums) and Oakland Cemetery. According to the author's notes, a church in Grant Park continues to provide spaghetti meals to the poor every week. Even the Varsity, a fast-food teen hangout, is an actual place still in existence today. Sprinkled throughout are French words and phrases, courtesy of Mary's mother who was part French. Mary enjoys many days in her mother's Atelier (art studio), and makes many references to French painting styles. Painting, she realizes, is good therapy as well as a talent she has inherited from her mother.

It is indeed Mary Swan's story, told in first person from the present day (summer of 2000) perspective while visiting with her daughter Abbie. Mary takes a fresh look back, telling her story to Abbie with fond remembrances of that year, 1962 to 1963.

Saturday, August 18, 2001

City of Angels: Historical Fiction Legal Thriller

City of Angels, Tracie Peterson and James Scott Bell's first book of the Shannon Saga, introduces 23-year-old Kit (Kathleen) Shannon, a young woman who desires to practice law. Only problem is, it is 1903 Los Angeles (the "City of Angels"), where the courtrooms are a man's world.

Orphaned Kit arrives by train from the east with a law certificate from the Women's Legal Education Society of New York, believing that it is God's will for her to practice law. She also wanted to meet her great-aunt Freddy, possibly her only living relative, and so traveled to Los Angeles, which, she soon learns, is a far cry from the more civilized East Coast. Even before setting foot in the city, Kit is advised to go back East; women lawyers are not accepted here. Aunt Freddy, a woman of high-society, takes to the girl but, finding her woefully inept in social graces, attempts to transform Kit into a "respectable" young woman who needs to find a husband ASAP!

Kit is not so easily distracted, however, and after many discouraging setbacks, lands employment with none other than the famous Earl Rogers (an actual historical figure), criminal defense lawyer. Assigned to a case of great notoriety, she struggles with her convictions: should she defend a client she suspects is guilty? Kit finds solace and strength through God's word and the memories of her father, a minister who died when she was eleven and whose Bible is all she has left from him.

Many people despise Rogers, whose clients represent the baser elements of society, hardened criminals as opposed to those of high society. Kit desires to help those who lack money yet have a good legal case, in contrast to her boss, a man who only takes those with enough money, but will defend and represent his clients as innocent whether or not they actually are. Earl Rogers and Kit Shannon learn from each other along the way, as Kit learns from Rogers the important parts of a trial lawyer's work -- such as jury selection, opening statements, and cross-examination -- while he comes to appreciate her skill as well as her faith.

Much of the story reads like a contemporary thriller, building upon the various characters by slowly providing more and more background information as the plot intensifies. Like a mystery, too, the reader comes across clues, early on, that build up towards the great murder trial and its conclusion. Soon Kit finds herself alongside Rogers taking on the corruption of the city, in a battle against blackmailed judges and the conniving lawyer Sloate, while also taking on the man who controls and would destroy her Aunt. The trial scenes are riveting, as the courtroom drama unfolds and Kit proves her skills as a quick-thinking lawyer.

Through Kit's experiences, the young Los Angeles of 1903 (population of only 105,000) comes alive, a city not yet overcrowded or polluted like the East; a place where city meets nearby country and desert. Kit finds a friend in a young Mexican girl, one of Aunt Freddy's servants, and enjoys new food such as oranges and tamales. She even experiences her first ride in a horseless carriage, a very noisy and dirty experience. Yet she cannot imagine, as friend Ted Fox does, the coming days of flying machines.

Another interesting historical figure is actor John Barrymore (who later became a successful star of silent movies and early talkies, and is actress Drew Barrymore's grandfather), who has a minor part as one of Earl Rogers' friends. From the east, he is appearing in a play in Los Angeles (Barrymore in fact later lived in Los Angeles, where he died in 1942), and tells of other family members such as his brother Lionel Barrymore. He also has a romantic interest in Kit.

The first in a series of three books (the next two books are currently in progress), City of Angels includes an Authors' note about the history of the court system in America, including the contributions Earl Rogers made with visual presentation of evidence. As portrayed in the story, Rogers was indeed skilled with medical terminology and once presented a jar of human intestines in a courtroom. The authors also note the practical non-existence of women trial lawyers of the time.

Tracie Peterson and James Scott Bell have together written a great story, historical fiction plus legal thriller in the style of John Grisham. Tracie Peterson brings another story in a long line of historical fiction family stories, and James Scott Bell, a former trial lawyer, brings his legal writing experience from previous legal thrillers such as Final Witness.

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

John Wycliffe's English Bible Translation: Glimpses of Truth

Though most English-speaking people today take English Bible translations for granted, the Bible was not always available in the peoples' common language. Indeed, the medieval Catholic Church held a tight grip over English peasants, allowing the Holy Scriptures to be printed and read only in Latin: which by the late-fourteenth century was only known by the well-educated, an elite club of Catholic clergy and English noblemen. Into this scene entered John Wycliffe, who made the first translation of the complete Bible into English, a first step towards the later King James Version of the early 17th century.

Yet for many years, English people were persecuted, even killed, for possession of a Bible in English. Such is the setting of Glimpses of Truth, a historical fiction novel by Jack Cavanaugh, set in England of 1384. Thomas Torr, an English peasant and probably the illegitimate son of Lord Harborough, has been educated and now works as a copyist and translator for John Wycliffe. He teaches Felice and her father, Howel, how to write English letters so they can also copy scripture, and soon they are also busy writing scripture verses on pieces of cloth--something so strange that many peasants think the writing a type of magic incantation with power to effect miracles.

Glimpses of Truth effectively captures the spirit of medieval England, showcasing several different characters, both peasants and nobility, in an adventurous story of romance, betrayal, and persecution. The peasants, including a revolutionary named Cale, distrust the authorities, and with good reason. Thomas, raised among the peasants but educated like the nobility, lives alternately among both worlds. Though in love with Felice, he struggles with pride, seeking out great opportunities such as an Oxford education as well as praise from Bishop Pole. John Wycliffe and others warn him to "beware the bishop," but Thomas must learn things the hard way.

John Wycliffe is the only historical character in the story, having a minor part interacting with Thomas and other copyists in Lutterworth, an actual English village in which Wycliffe operated one of his scriptoriums. Thomas, along with his guests Felice and Howel, also witness Wycliffe's last sermon in December 1384, when Wycliffe collapsed, dying a few days later. Reference is also made to the Lollards, itinerant preachers that went about the countryside preaching, reading and teaching Wycliffe's translation to the common folk. Other highlights include entertaining scenes of Christ's Mass, the medieval version of our Christmas, and its customs such as "blind man's bluff" games and the "Lord of Misrule" (in which the people voted one of their own to be the ruler for a day).

The book includes several pages of additional information from the author and another commentator, with explanations as to which parts of the story were historical versus fiction. An overview of English history relating to the translations of the Bible, from Wycliffe's first translation to the one still familiar today, the 1611 King James translation, is also included. As Cavanaugh explains, Wycliffe's translation, though English, was very Latinized, even in its grammar and syntax and when English idioms would have better expressed the words. Thus, Glimpses of Truth includes several parallel versions of scripture that show the original Latin text and the King James English equivalent. The characters also quote from the later translation, for ease of understanding by modern-day readers.

Glimpses of Truth is the first of a series of four books about the early English Bible translations, but the following books have been delayed. The author's second book, Beyond the Sacred Page, is currently in progress and will hopefully be available within the next few months.

Saturday, August 11, 2001

Only the River Runs Free: A Story from 1840s Ireland

Only the River Runs Free, the first book in Bodie and Brock Thoene's "The Galway Chronicles" Series, tells the plight of the peasant Irish Catholic tenant farmers of Ireland, struggling under the English protestant landlords that rule their country. It is a bleak time indeed, in which the English own the land, the schools and the government, making their living off the exorbitant tithes and taxes they eke out of the poor farmers. From the time of England's Great Empire, which included control over South Africa and Australia as well as Ireland, and a time contemporary with Charles Dickens' novels, comes a wonderful tale of ordinary people living in a land where, as the saying goes, "only the river runs free." Yet Ireland of the 1840s is not that far gone: the Galway Chronicles explain much of the underlying problems still rampant in Ireland today, and the reasons for the immigration of so many Irish to the United States during this time.

The story begins in 1827, when wicked Marlowe poisons his brother-in-law, "the Burke", and attempts to kill Burke's only heir, eight-year-old Connor Burke. Thus acquiring the Burke's estate, Uncle Marlowe and his son William begin their reign of oppression over the poor Irish farmers of Ballynockanor, Galway County. John Stone and Constable Carroll, the Marlowes' friends, are equally wicked, men who will readily give false testimony or rape any woman caught outside after curfew.

Thought to have died beneath the ice, Connor Burke has lived in exile for fifteen years when he quietly returns to his homeland on Christmas Eve, 1841, as the unassuming Joseph Connor. Studying in preparation for the Catholic priesthood, Joseph boards with Father O'Bannon and gets to know the people of Ballynockanor. Only Molly Fahey (formerly Burke's servant), now "Mad Molly," holds the key to the truth, including Connor's legal rights. But the tragedy also took her sanity. Yet she had prophesied that a miracle would come to Ballynockanor that day; could the arrival of Joseph Connor be that miracle?

The Donovan family of Ballynockanor has seen its share of tragedy by the time they meet Joseph. Mother has died, and eldest daughter Kate, at 23, is already dead in her spirit, waiting to join her husband and child taken in the fire that left much of her body permanently scarred. Da (Tom Donovan) also weeps for Kate, wallowing much of the time in the drink.

The rest of the family, including Kevin (age 18), Bridget (15), Martin (11), and Mary Elizabeth (age 6), do their part as well as they can, going about their daily school and/or work activities. Even the children face persecution, as they daily endure the English National School, the hated place that indoctrinates Irish children with shame for their heritage while extolling the great English. Thus an economics class, though teaching the concept of value and what makes something valuable, carefully avoids the topic of land and its worth. Students must say "I am a happy English child" and punishment involves reciting 100 times "a child of the dust must not be proud."

The family must stick together for their very survival, cooperating with the authorities and allowing all injustices, lest they lose their homes and livelihood. For English law also decrees that all family members must bear the punishment for the wrongdoings of one of their own. When an Irish Catholic son is party to violence against the English Protestants, he is sent to the prison in New South Wales; his family's home is promptly leveled to the ground, every brick of the foundation uprooted. Such families, allowed to sell the lumber that remains, typically use that money to buy passage to the United States.

Ribbonmen roam the countryside, causing general mischief such as branding cattle and robbing the landowners, trying to violently overthrow the oppressive landlords. Joseph Connor urges a peaceful resolution through Repeal (laws to protect tenants' rights and prevent unfair rents). Yet it seems to Joseph that in everything he fails. When he should warn, he fails to do so; and when he seeks peace, others call him a traitor. He loves Kate, yet Kate's heart is cold and dead to love; she will not let any man love her. Finally, when the wayward Bridget Donovan, with her lofty ambitions and self-interest, becomes the family prodigal child, Joseph vows to do all he can to bring her home, praying he will not fail in this as well.

A Gold Medallion Book Award winner (1998), Only the River Runs Free is a heartwarming story, the first in the Galway Chronicles series about the ordinary people of Ireland in the 1840s and their dream to be free from England's rule. The characters and the town itself come alive through the many splendid details of daily life with the Donovan family.

Saturday, July 28, 2001

As Sure as the Dawn: Early Christians in Rome

As Sure as the Dawn, Francine Rivers' conclusion to the three-part "Mark of the Lion" series, continues the story of early Christians in Ancient Rome of the late 1st century A.D., this time telling the story of former gladiator, Atretes, and his return to his homeland of Germania (modern-day Germany).

Hadassah, the Christian heroine of the first two books of "Mark of the Lion", is martyred for her faith early in the book. Thus begins a new chapter in the "Mark of the Lion" saga, this time with Atretes and another young Christian woman, a widow named Rizpah. Atretes' baby by Julia was not killed after all, Hadassah tells Atretes; she had rescued the child and given him to the apostle John in Ephesus. Desiring his son, Atretes finds the apostle and learns that John has given the baby to Rizpah. Determined to get his son back, he gets more than he bargained for when Rizpah, who loves the babe as her own, refuses to leave.

Restless with his newfound freedom after ten years of being trained to fight and act like an animal in the arena, Atretes desires to return to his homeland. But he does not know the way home, and lacks the money for such a long journey (having spent all his fortune on a villa near Ephesus). His former instructor as well as the many amoratae (gladiator "groupies" or fans) would gladly see him return to the arena, the only thing he really knows. In desperation Atretes finally accepts help from Rizpah.

Primarily a travel-focused book, As Sure as the Dawn includes several maps showing the different parts of the long trip. The story, likewise, is actually composed of four distinct segments: Atretes' life before leaving Ephesus, followed by the first leg of the journey, by sea to Rome. Later, Atretes and Rizpah, along with a retired, Roman centurion named Theophilus, continue the journey by land, north through Italy, over the Alps and into barbarian country, finally arriving among the Chatti tribe, where the last part of the story takes place.

Along the way, Atretes fights against the continual presence of the Christians, especially despising Theophilus, a Roman: for he also hates Rome and anyone or anything affiliated with Rome. His pride and anger continually get him into trouble, leading up to very tense and exciting scenes in the capital city itself, when it appears indeed that Domitian will find Atretes and send him back to the arena. Many times throughout the adventures, Atretes tries Rizpah's patience (and that of the readers) with his foolish, stubborn ways, while in spite of everything, Atretes and Rizpah feel increasingly attracted to each other.

Some parts of the novel seem to drag too much, overloading the reader's level of frustration while holding back too much on Atretes' gradual change. Will he ever learn, will he ever change? Yet just when, seemingly, the story has gone far enough in one direction, the plot abruptly shifts, and slowly the characters grow and mature from their experiences.

Though overall a historical fiction novel, the last part in particular resembles more of a "spiritual warfare" story in the style of Christian author Frank Peretti. A tale of its own (quite different from the earlier pages of As Sure as the Dawn), this story involves the dark spiritual forces of the pagan Chatti. Like other nations untouched by the gospel (even with today's primitive savages in dark parts of the world), the real question is: which god is more powerful? The Chatti's power-obsessed, demonic priestess, a young woman named Anomia, opposes Atretes' and his new religion and tries to rally the people to their native god, Tiwaz.

Though primarily a combination romance and spiritual warfare story, the historical setting of early Rome brings out interesting details of the Roman Empire of the time (A.D. 80). Reference is made to the Romans' destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., along with mention of the more recent destruction of Pompeii by volcano (A.D. 79), which the ship passengers can observe along the coast of southern Italy. Also mentioned is the history of conflict between Rome and the Germanic tribes, and the Romans' practice of enslaving German captives (as in the case of Atretes). The Chatti were an actual Germanic tribe, a particularly difficult foe for the Romans, that also fought against the Hermunduri, another actual tribe mentioned in As Sure as the Dawn. The story is replete with several Roman words, such as triclinium, aureus (a type of coin), and the ludus; a glossary at the back explains the meanings of these and many other words of first-century Rome. Rizpah, Atretes, and Theophilus experience both the decadence of the Roman public baths and the peaceful, if not deathlike, hiding place of the catacombs, all bringing alive the world of Ancient Rome to modern-day readers.

Saturday, July 21, 2001

Overview of The Williamsburg Novels (Elswyth Thane)

The Williamsburg series of historical novels by Elswyth Thane (1900-1981), originally published in the 1940s and early 1950s, consists of seven books spanning almost 170 years of the fictional Day and Sprague families. The books start with the American Revolution and end during the first part of World War II in England.

The Williamsburg series of historical novels by Elswyth Thane (1900-1981) consists of seven books spanning almost 170 years of the fictional Day and Sprague families. The books, starting with the American Revolution and ending during the first part of World War II, are as follows:

Dawn's Early Light
Yankee Stranger
Ever After
The Light Heart
Kissing Kin
This Was Tomorrow
Homing

Though named for Williamsburg, only the first two stories center around Williamsburg (or even greater Virginia), a Williamsburg in its hey-day at the time of the American Revolution (Dawn's Early Light) but already relegated to a lesser status by the time of the Civil War (Yankee Stranger), where much of the action takes place in Richmond, the new Confederate capitol.

The last five books begin a generation after Yankee Stranger, in 1897, and continue uninterrupted through 1941, with recurring characters from one book to the next while new, younger characters are introduced along the way. These books depart sharply from the first two, in that the books are continuous from one to the next without generation gaps, and, more importantly, most of the action takes place in England, with some events in New York City. Only a few family members, in the background, remain in Williamsburg, while others take root in England. Also, given the definition of historical fiction as fiction set during times before the author's lifetime, and that Elswyth Thane was born in 1900, technically the last four books do not qualify as historical fiction. Indeed, since Thane was writing during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the last few books were written from a fairly recent time-perspective. Of course, to today's readers the books stand as real historical fiction, about times now at least 60 years ago, without the familiarity the books undoubtedly had to Thane's contemporaries.

Dawn's Early Light tells the story of Julian Day, a young British man newly arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, who soon meets John Sprague. With the colonies in a rebellious mood, Day, who had not given the matter much thought, finds he must soon choose loyalties; does he belong here, in Virginia with the Spragues, or back in his old country? Colonial Williamsburg also hosts the lower class, the down-trodden of society, including young Tibby Mawes and her twin brother Kip, who Julian first meets when they are about nine years old--in the company of an abusive, alcoholic father. The father is soon removed from the picture, and Kip becomes one of Julian Day's students. Tibby eagerly desires schooling too, but since that is not allowed for girls, Julian arranges for her proper education as a young lady of the higher social class. Over the years, Tibby and Julian become closer, though Julian, twelve years older than Tibby, has his eyes set on other women. Set during the American Revolution, Dawn's Early Light also includes interaction with real historical figures such as the French General Lafayette, and historical events including the British invasion of Williamsburg.

Yankee Stranger, a Civil War romance, tells of young Eden Day, great-granddaughter of Julian and Tibby Day, and her romance with Yankee war correspondent Cabot Murray. The book deals intensely with the sorrows and hardships of war-ravaged Virginia, including detailed descriptions of the women's daily life tending to the wounded in Richmond. The historical elements of the story also bring out the fascinating and very true situation of espionage, including women's role as spies that hid notes in their hoop skirts.

By the time of the Civil War, members of the Day and Sprague families have married each other, and then first cousins married each other, for some very close blood ties between the two families. A secondary story thus relates the love between Sedgwick Sprague and Sue Day (Eden's sister), a love forbidden because they are double first-cousins, and a story that will be often recalled in the later books.

The last five books, starting with "Ever After" (set in 1897-1899), tell the stories of Eden Day Murray's children, especially Bracken and Virginia, and Sedgwick Sprague's daughter Phoebe. The British Campion family, with Dinah, Arthur, and Oliver, also marry into members of the Murray and Sprague families, for many interesting relationships among the many cousins on both sides of the continent. Real historical settings include the Spanish-American war, World War I, and the early years of World War II in Great Britain, detailing the lives of war correspondents and generally upper-class families of England.

A distinct anti-German, pro-British sentiment is woven into the World War stories particularly, no doubt reflecting popular British sentiment of the time as well as Elswyth Thane's own views--as one who lived many years in both New York and England during this time. Social class distinctions also pervade these later books, with some hint of snobbery to lower classes (at least as viewed by modern-day middle-class Americans); yet such attitudes probably do reflect actual views and practices of the wealthier families of the early 20th century.

Perhaps because of these realistic qualities, along with the extensive family tree charts (printed in later editions of the books), the characters of the Day-Sprague-Campion extended family do come alive, sweeping the reader into the midst of their stories and their lives.

Of these last five books, some of the strongest characters include Phoebe Sprague, who grows up in Williamsburg but spends much of her adult life in New York and England (The Light Heart), as well as Gwen and Dinah (Ever After). The male characters seem less developed, or perhaps it is just that they follow standard, more predictable patterns, especially the politically-charged news reporters of the family: Cabot Murray, son Bracken Murray, and Johnny Malone, all of whom, aside from romantic interests at certain points of their lives, apparently live for the latest news all over Europe.

The last book, Homing, stands apart from the preceding two in the series (Kissing Kin and This Was Tomorrow, the two weaker links in the series), with stronger characters including Jeff (Phoebe's son) and Mab (Virginia's granddaughter) and a great story which links the latest generation back to the first story (of Julian and Tibby) along with an interesting backdrop of early World War II in England, coming full circle back to Williamsburg, Virginia. Particularly interesting, from a historical perspective, is the account of the British evacuation of children from London, including its impact on the children as well as the country-dwelling adults, and their ever-present fear of Germans parachuting into Britain.

Saturday, July 14, 2001

Review -- Stonewall: A Novel (John J. Dwyer, 1998)

In this excellent work of biographical fiction, Dwyer relates the story of Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson as a novel. The 632-page work delves into Jackson’s life, of which his Civil War fame is but a minor part. Indeed, the war doesn’t even start until page 400. Yet the subject matter is much more than a simple biography: a novel with dialog, character development and major themes. As the author points out, where the historical record is absent he uses dramatic license to fill in the gaps. The resulting story encompasses Jackson, his friends and neighbors of Lexington, Virginia, and the even bigger story of the times in which they lived.

The book starts out reading much like a biography instead of a novel, and a rather slow paced one at that, with little dialog or character development, up until the time when Jackson settles into his teaching career at the VMI in Lexington. Yet these pages set the stage for the rest of the book, which does become more interesting the further along it goes. A few interesting details emerge in this early part, including Jackson's early years of loss (most family members died when he was young) and the beginning of a close relationship with younger sister Laura. Jackson’s academic career at West Point and his heroic charge up Chapultepec Hill during the Mexican war are further highlights. Then the novel abruptly jumps from the end of the Mexican war, when Jackson receives military honors, to his life at VMI. Only later, in a few sentences, are we even told about the circumstances leading up to the VMI assignment and the year or so spent in the Florida everglades after the war.

Much of the book relates Jackson’s life in Lexington, Virginia during the 1850s as Jackson progressed from a very shy and awkward professor to a community and church leader. The author spares no details in relating Jackson's faults as a very dry, ineffective teacher, including the many class pranks and the conflict with James Walker, the student that Jackson had court-martialed and expelled from the VMI.

Sister Laura and the Junkin sisters, Ellie and Maggie, are among the women given special emphasis in the novel. Each woman has her own story to tell and exists independently of Jackson, yet Jackson is always nearby, showing them his care and concern.

Jackson maintains a lifelong relationship with Laura, corresponding over the years with a sister who becomes increasingly bitter in a life with an alcoholic husband who neglects his wife and children. Thomas visits her often at her home in the Allegheny Mountains, spending time with her children while teaching them of God and praying that Laura would come to peace with God and salvation in Christ; but it is not to be. The Civil War finally draws a wedge between her and her brother, whom she disowns in a vitriolic letter in which she writes "I would rather my brother be dead than a rebel."

We first meet the Junkin sisters, Maggie and Ellie, in their home at a party that Jackson has been invited to. Maggie (later known as Margaret Junkin Preston, the famous "Poetess of the Civil War"), in her early 30s, and Ellie, mid-20s, live with their father, George Junkin, the president of Washington College. Rather immature and tomboyish, the sisters enjoy riding horses and dressing up alike, and are very close to each other.

Maggie, four years older than Jackson, is rather caustic and flippant, the family poetess who expresses her secret pains in her writings. When Jackson meets her she has already published a few books of poetry. Ellie, by contrast, is the very picture of the humble Christian servant, the sweet and giving character that everyone in town loves, the one skilled in social graces, always caring for others and helping them out in time of need. When Jackson expresses romantic interest in the younger sister, Maggie flames up with resentment, insisting that her sister deserves better than that buffoon, while harboring bitterness towards Jackson for coming between her and Ellie.

Jackson and Ellie are together for little more than a year, until Ellie dies in childbirth. Maggie, angry with God as well as Jackson, departs for Europe on her own, to spare her family the blackness of her spirit. Meanwhile, Jackson has started corresponding with Maggie as a way of working out his own grief. Maggie finally comes to her senses and peace with God over her own guilt and anger, and, returning home, develops a close friendship with Thomas Jackson. He and Maggie spend many happy times together, laughing and sharing common interests to a degree that even Thomas and Ellie had not enjoyed. Yet their growing realization of romantic love for each other means turmoil as they feel tempted by the very thing forbidden them. For the Presbyterian church has decreed that one cannot marry his or her deceased spouse's sibling; brothers- and sisters-in-law are forever brother and sister before God, and therefore can never marry each other. Frustrated but at last accepting the hopelessness of the situation, Jackson suddenly directs his affections to his friend's sister-in-law, Anna Morrison. Maggie too relents, finally noticing the attentions of the widower John Preston. Within a few weeks of each other, Jackson marries Anna and Maggie marries John Preston.

This is Virginia of the 1850s, though, and the events leading up to the Civil War are very much a part of the characters' lives. Stonewall: The Novel tackles the issues leading up to the Civil War, from the perspective of Stonewall and the other Virginians of his time: a very different view from today's politically correct environment. The author mentions several historical facts and statistics as a way of introducing the topic, noting that the importing of new slaves had ended some 50 years before, slaves were becoming harder to come by, and that fewer than 25% of Southerners owned even one slave. Most owners did not mistreat their slaves, as it would be foolish to harm your own property in which you had invested a lot of money. The fear of slave revolts, especially Nat Turner's revolt twenty years past, further instills such discipline in even the whites who do not fear God.

The Christian, Calvinist men of Virginia can find no biblical condemnation of slavery and, though somewhat uncomfortable with the institution, see it as an acceptable situation in an imperfect world, so long as slaves are treated well (as most are). They also see a great cruelty in turning loose the many slaves they feel are ill-equipped to handle life on their own, if suddenly turned out from their more-secure situations. Many favor the idea of sending the blacks to the Liberia colony, where they can establish their own civilization (an idea later proposed even by President Lincoln; the idea did not originate with him).

As the conflict between North and South intensifies, the book points out that Harriet Beecher Stowe had never even set foot in a slave-holding state and that her book did not represent the mainstream of slavery. Then the radical John Brown goes on a killing spree in Kansas, killing slave-owners as well as a freed black. The southerners are appalled at how so many well-known Northerners applaud Brown as a great hero rather than a violent outlaw, and no one speaks the voice of reason. (The situation seems eerily familiar in our day, when people praise abortion-clinic bombers, except that very few in our day do so, and would be rightly criticized for such ideas. Thus we realize how extremely polarizing and influential the northern abolitionists were in their day).

Throughout his life, Jackson does not own slaves, except later on when a few young Negroes in the community, knowing him to be a more benevolent master, ask him to purchase them. With these slaves he arranges a definite timetable for their freedom after working for a period of time, helping out his wife and with the work around the house. Jackson also starts up the first successful Sunday School in town for Negro children, amidst opposition from some whites who point to the law on the books that forbids the public assembly of blacks (a reaction against the terrible Nat Turner incident).

The author develops several strong black characters, detailing their lives and changing attitudes, such as Ruthie, the Junkin's older household servant, and Lylburn Downing, an easy-going young Negro who hungers for God's word and wants to learn how to read. With assistance from Jackson and a few friends in town, he even attends church services -- hiding in a closet behind the pastor. He often hangs around the church building after hours, pretending to be a preacher with an imaginary audience. He does learn how to read, and reads his Bible to fellow blacks who nickname him "preacher." Near the story's end, Lylburn is faced with the possibility of freedom. But with most of the white men gone to war, he sees the desperate plight of the many women and children at home, many of whom have lost loved ones, and understands his calling to stay and minister to those in his community.

The latter part of the book details Jackson's military victories as well as his personal life with wife Anna, and his role in the Christian revivals that swept through the Confederate troops of northern Virginia. The southern troops, though hopelessly outnumbered, have many stunning victories over the Union, with Jackson ever giving glory to God for those victories.

Jackson the military strategist also emerges, with an especially telling scene immediately after the Confederate victory at Manassas, or the First Bull Run. The author describes the Northerners' panic as they are suddenly pushed back by an enemy they had belittled; now they fear the worst, even possible evacuation of Washington City: a moment when the Confederates had the best opportunity to win the war and their right to secede. Yet the rains come and the southerners have many wounded themselves and are deterred from further action. Then soon afterwards, Jackson has a conversation with a superior officer, in which he presents a well-thought-out plan to come around and encircle the North, converge on the Capitol, and press for surrender. Jackson points out the necessity of quick, swift and aggressive action, for time is their enemy. Given time, the North will regroup, and with its many more resources will outlast the south and its very limited resources, both of men and supplies for their people. But like Ahithophel of Biblical days, whose wise counsel to the rebel Absalom against his father King David was ignored, Jackson's astute ideas are ignored, thus setting the stage for what Jackson predicts and would indeed come to pass, bringing the downfall of the Confederate cause. From the biblical parallel the reader can conclude that God has instead chosen to frustrate the good advice of an Ahithophel, or a Stonewall Jackson, for His own purposes, while being gracious to Jackson by giving him many great victories in Northern Virginia, for a time.

Jackson's military brilliance and successes are indeed shown as being crucial to the Southern cause, with Robert E. Lee telling the wounded Jackson that "you have lost your left arm, but I have lost my right arm." As mentioned at the novel's beginning, so becomes clear at the end, the words of the New Orleans bishop ordered to pray when Lincoln's body made its tour through the south: "O Lord, when Thou didst decide to defeat the Confederate States of America, Thou first had to remove Thy servant Stonewall Jackson."

Saturday, June 30, 2001

Learn about King Philip's War: Rehoboth

Angela Elwell Hunt's novel Rehoboth (Book 4 in the "Keepers of the Ring" series) describes in great detail a "forgotten" event in colonial history, known as King Philip's war. The greatest uprising of the native population against the English settlers, King Philip's war lasted over a full year (1675-1676), and took more lives, per capita, than any other war fought on American soil. A huge setback for the New England colonists, it took an even greater toll on the native Algonquin Indian tribes in the area, clearing the way for further colonial expansion.

Rehoboth, the book's title, was the name of one of the many colonial villages (in present-day Massachusetts) destroyed by the Indians during this war. Much of the novel, therefore, focuses on this unfortunate town, where Aiyana Bailie lives for a while. The story begins with the Bailies living on Martha's Vineyard among friendly, Christianized or "praying" Indians. Daniel (really Taregan) Bailie decides that his work among this group of Indians is complete, and wants to move to Roxbury to assist John Eliot (a real historical figure who lived in Roxbury with many villages of praying Indians) in his work there. Along the way the family stops in Rehoboth, to arrange for daughter Aiyana (age 17) to work as a hired servant for a family there; Daniel and his son Mojag (age 21) will travel further on, to Roxbury.

Aiyana soon finds love, as well as racial tensions and, later, danger, in Rehoboth. Her English boyfriend's father will not accept a mixed-race daughter-in-law (Aiyana and Mojag are 5/8 Indian) and tries to match his son up with a proper Puritan girl, to no avail. As the war progresses, Rehoboth is attacked a first time, leaving many dead. Later, when the colonial government deports all the praying Indians to islands off the mainland, Daniel sends for Aiyana, who soon joins him along with the other Indians on overcrowded Deer Island.

Meanwhile, Mojag hears the call to live and minister among the Wampanoag Indians, and specifically to sachem Metacomet (known by the English as King Philip) only a few months before the outbreak of war. Metacomet sees Mojag as a civilized Indian who knows nothing of how to survive in the wilderness like the "real" Indians. Anxious to win Metacomet's approval, Mojag impulsively agrees to spend a month alone in the wilderness, the test faced by all young Indian warriors as a rite of passage to manhood, and soon realizes his foolishness. An angel finally delivers him from his many problems by giving him a crash course on wilderness survival, and Mojag returns triumphantly to Metacomet after a month, ready to live among the Wampanoags.

Thus Mojag and Aiyana are separated from each other, and throughout much of the book they and their father are scattered, not knowing where the others are. They are finally reunited when the war ends a year later.

Rehoboth begins with the uneasy peace less than a year before war, and concludes with the end of the war, covering a much shorter time span than the first three books of the "Keepers of the Ring" series (which spanned from 10 to 20 years each). Throughout the novel are many references to actual events of King Philip's war, enough to piece together the majority of the historical event: everything from the events leading up to the war, the incident that started the war in June 1675, to the war's final end in August of 1676 (when a company led by Benjamin Church chased King Philip through the countryside for weeks until they found and killed him). Unlike many historical novels that keep the historical situation in the background with only a few details related to the main story, Hunt's Rehoboth characters are closely connected to the historical situation and are directly affected by actual events. Perhaps because the true historical story has been largely forgotten by today's readers, and is yet a very interesting part of early American life, this novel stands complete, with a basic story about brother and sister separated from each other and how they interact with others during a terrible war.

Metacomet (King Philip) is a major character even before Mojag meets him, with early scenes of dialog between several Indian sachems, even the plotting to kill Philip's secretary John Sassamon, who had converted to Christianity and warned the colonists of the Indians' war plans. Many times throughout the book the reader learns the thoughts of Metacomet, including his distrust of the English and their God, his pride of the old warrior Indian, his initial desire for peace but then realization that the situation is out of his control, and his final hardening of heart when he turns Mojag and his friends away.

Besides John Eliot and King Philip, other noteworthy historical figures include Benjamin Church, one of the military leaders, and Mary Rowlandson, one of the captives taken during the attack on Lancaster. Their adventures are likewise told from written historical accounts as well as dialog and narratives. The story ends with a brief summary about the war's aftermath and consequences, as well as its effects on the praying Indians and John Eliot's ministry.