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