Sunday, September 15, 2002

Highland Mercies: Blue Ridge Legacy Continues

Gary Parker's "Blue Ridge Legacy" continues the story of Abby Porter, who in the first book, Highland Hopes, grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina in the early 20th century. Now Abby continues her story immediately where it left off, in the fall of 1929. After seeing some closure in the first book -- Abby reconciled to her father just before his death, and Daniel getting the money to buy back the family land -- the Porter clan is thrown into chaos. The Great Depression has arrived even in Blue Springs, and quickly all the Porter members lose their life savings when the banks fail.

As with the first book, Highland Mercies captures the heart and spirit of the proud Highlanders. In this book, which tells of the years 1929 to 1945, modern life has caught up even to the folk of Blue Ridge, with all the conveniences of cars, electricity and telephones. A time and place reminiscent of "The Waltons," the rural Highlanders face Prohibition, hard economic times, and then the shock of Pearl Harbor and World War II.

Yet even more so than the background setting, the characters themselves enrich Highland Mercies. Once again, Parker's characters exhibit great depth and show clear contrasts in how they respond to life's problems. Abby Porter Waterbury matures, no longer the ambitious young person determined to forever leave Blue Springs and make something of her life. Now, as she faces marital problems and raising two boys to adulthood, Abby realizes that a time must come to give up her own dreams so that others can enjoy theirs. Her faith is more mature and real now, not a mere emotional experience at conversion (yet which showed little evidence in her life). The hard times in her own life mirror that of the country mired in the Depression, and now her true character comes through, one depending on God to care for her and her loved ones.

Just as the hard times prove Abby's heart of faith, so they will test other characters, and find them wanting. Abby's husband Steve, who already showed signs of weakness in the first novel, not surprisingly develops even greater problems when demand for lawyers dries up. Daniel Porter, married with young children, at first seems able to withstand the hardships. After all, he has always been able to take care of himself and family as long as he could work hard. He never had a problem with being lazy or taking to "the doublings" (liquor). Yet as the years and problems accumulate, Daniel seems unable to let go of the past, such as his dream to buy back the land. Perhaps his confidence has been in himself, not in God, and now the temptation of alcohol rings stronger.

Other characters are back, including the ever-troublesome Clack family, for more clan conflict. Abby's stepmother Elsa, and half-brother Solomon (Elsa's son) have larger roles as well, and it is exciting to follow their lives through the years. Appropriately enough, too, Abby's sons become part of the story in later years, perhaps setting the stage for the next book in this enriching series. Highland Mercies is a strong follow-up in the "Blue Ridge Legacy," and I look forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, September 1, 2002

The Crown and the Crucible: Czarist Russia

After reading Judith Pella's recent Written on the Wind, I was curious to read more of the author's work, especially about Russia -- a prominent feature in this new "Daughters of Fortune" series. "The Russians" is a seven-volume series featuring Pella's earlier writings about of Russia. Written by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella, this series begins with The Crown and the Crucible, in 1870s St. Petersburg. Through two teenage girls, one of nobility and one peasant, the authors explore the world of Czarist Russia.

Sixteen-year-old Anna Yevnovna, peasant from a small village, must leave her home to work in the city. She soon finds herself hired as personal maid to the spoiled 15-year-old Katrina Fedorcenko. Yet through their experiences together, both girls grow to maturity and greater understanding of the world around them.

Russia under the Czars is an uncertain place, amidst changing times. The current Czar, Alexander II, is portrayed as weak and indecisive -- the latest of the rich heritage of the Romanov dynasty and its greater past rulers. Yet, we learn, even in pre-Socialist Russia people had to guard their words, lest they offend the Czar; and censorship of the press did not originate with the later Soviet Union. Tragic political events of the late 1870s, though, would pave the way for events of the next 40 years, culminating in the Russian Revolution. Thus, we see a glimpse of the nation's underlying problems. Through an interesting story about Anna and Katrina and their families, the authors introduce a wealth of information about Russia's history, culture, and politics. An introductory section (about 30 pages) tells Russia's history back to its beginnings, and maps show the Russian Empire of this time.

Yet it is the people themselves, and a strong story, that conveys the sense of Russia far more than a dry history text could. We meet Anna's humble, Christian father, of the old peasant world -- in contrast to Anna's younger brother Paul, angry, discontent, and anxious to change the world, meeting with other pre-revolutionaries. Among the nobility we see the spoiled, self-centered Katrina who takes her sheltered life for granted, contrasted with her poetic, sensitive older brother Sergei. Yet even the wealthy have their hardships; due to recent reforms, including the serfs' (peasants) liberation from slavery, sons of nobility must fight Russia's wars alongside lower classes of men. Their fathers, though close associates of the Czar, live in fear of the Czar's temper and moodiness, never sure of where they stand or of who might politically back-stab them.

The Crown and the Crucible is an excellent beginning to a 7-part saga about the people of Russia in an uncertain, tumultuous period of history, with great historical background and interesting characters.