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.