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.