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

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."