Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Mountain Shadows: Regional Fiction about the Adirondacks

Mountain Shadows, by Patricia Reiss Brooks, is an interesting regional historical fiction novel that highlights a unique period in American history. Through the setting – upper New York State in 1926 – we get a look at both the Prohibition-era "rum runners" and the tuberculosis "cure cottages" of Saranac Lake.

Irish Catholic Joe Devlin struggles to pay for his wife’s ever-increasing medical bills at a cure cottage. Along the way he ends up working with the rum runners, leading a very confused double-life –a mechanic at the Club in Lake Placid during the week, a rum runner going up to Canada on weekends, mixed in with visits to his sick wife.

The regional history research is outstanding, particularly about the troopers’ special unit and their escapades with the "rum runners." The cure cottage scenes also portray the strange world of "lungers" sleeping outside on porches while enjoying the carefree, morally loose "Roaring Twenties." Mountain Shadows doesn’t really elaborate on the history (prior to 1925) of the tuberculosis "cure" in Saranac Lake, or of the detailed care available at the sanatoriums. Rather, the story gives a glimpse at one sample "cure cottage," and what daily life may have been like, complete with the list of "the rules" the patients followed. The overall climate, the special community feeling, of Saranac Lake is also well contrasted with the outside world. Lake Placid in particular was quite clear about keeping the diseases out; the story even hints at the standard prejudice of the time, referencing a sign marked "no jews or lungers."

The author’s website,, has additional research material as well as background related to this novel.

The story itself is well-written, with a decent, suspenseful page-turning plot. Other than Joe, the characters are not all well-defined and seem rather stereotyped in some cases. The ending seems a bit rushed, as it takes the easiest way out of the many problems to get to a neat conclusion. Still, the story and overall dialog works great, keeping the story moving. Mountain Shadows is an entertaining read and interesting for its look at this unusual period of New York State history.

Friday, October 1, 2004

The Dawning of Deliverance: The Russians, Book 5

The Dawning of Deliverance, Book 5 in Judith Pella’s "The Russians," continues the story of the Russian Federcenko family. Begun in 1876, this saga now covers the early years of the 20th century – 1904, in particular. Also, after focusing more on Anna and Sergei during the earlier books, The Dawning of Deliverance focuses primarily on the younger generation: Mariana Remizov, and Anna and Sergei’s sons Yuri and Andrei.

The major historical people and events now include the Russo-Japanese war and the beginnings of labor unrest back home, culminating in the tragic events of "Bloody Sunday" in January 1905. Mariana goes to the war front as a nurse, and through her experiences we learn of the bungled Russian war operation, the great humiliation that Russia suffered at the hands of the smaller, less powerful Japan. Back home, Sergei helps to teach factory workers, becoming acquainted with the laborers and early unions. Along the way, we meet such historical figures as General Stoessel (in Asia) and Father Gapon, the peaceful priest involved with the labor movement, and even a young Alexander Kerensky, future Soviet leader.

The Federcenko clan has lost its earlier influence with the Tsar, but directly and indirectly we get a glimpse of the Romanov family, including its family secret and the beginning of Alexandra’s relationship with Rasputin. Anna’s brother Paul is rarely seen, and still interacts with Lenin and the revolutionaries – yet now shows signs of maturity.

Some of the plots seem a bit worn, especially the continued villainy from Basil Anickin and Cyril Vlasenko. After nearly 25 years and several books, it seems time to bring in some new antagonists. Instead, both Basil and Cyril stick around, still consumed with their plots to destroy the Federcenko family. Mariana also finds herself, once again, desired by two men – the American reporter Daniel Trent, and a young Russian nobleman she meets at the war front. The love plot is resolved and brought to closure, though, and the two villains thankfully do not dominate the story overall.

Despite the predictable revenge plots, though, the overall story is enjoyable and educational. Particularly intriguing are new character developments in the sons Yuri (now 14 to 15) and Andrei (age 12), who will take on further prominence in the next book in the series (White Nights, Red Morning). The Dawning of Deliverance is entertaining historical fiction about a family living through troubled times in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

In My Father's House: Post-World War I America

Bodie Thoene’s "Shiloh Legacy" begins with In My Father’s House. Starting near the end of World War I, In My Father’s House covers a tumultuous period of history: the horrors of the Great War, the Flu Epidemic, and then the racial violence of the post-war years.

The story follows the lives of several young soldiers in France at the war’s end – their last battles, the Armistice celebrations, welcoming home and their adjustments to post-war life. The story at first includes Max Meyer and his affair with a young Irish woman, but that particular plot gets to a certain point and then stops (to be resumed, apparently, in the next book in the series). In particular, In My Father’s House details the lives of Ellis Warne in Ohio, and several other characters – farmboy Birch Tucker, black soldier Jefferson Canfield, and Jewish Trudy Meyer – residing in Western Arkansas. Through the two settings – Ohio and Arkansas – we see the major issues confronting both regions, including the Ku Klux Klan’s influence in both the Jim Crow South and the politics of suburban Ohio.

The "Shiloh Legacy" series is said to include some of the characters referenced later in the Zion book series. Having read the "Zion Covenant" pre-World War II series, it was nice to meet the younger Theo Lindheim, if only briefly.

As with their other novels, the Thoenes again bring a well-researched story rich with information about the time period. The year 1919 was among the more violent in race riots, and the story makes reference to such things as the Chicago riot and the general anti-immigrant, isolationist attitude of most Americans. President Woodrow Wilson even makes a brief appearance, and characters later follow-up with the news of Wilson’s unsuccessful attempt to have the U.S. join the "League of Nations."

The one weakness is the author’s tendency – so common in modern-day historical fiction works – to project today’s politically correct ideas, especially concerning racial issues, onto the major characters of an earlier time period. At times it seems that some of the characters (especially Trudy Meyer and Birch Tucker) are mere transplants from our day, with seemingly no clue about black-white relationships in the early twentieth century. Even Doc Warne seems amazingly out of step with his contemporaries, considering the economic and social circumstances.

As the first part of a series, this first novel has a seemingly abrupt ending, one that leaves too many unresolved plot threads. The next two books in the series continue the story over the next decade. In My Father’s House is an excellent start to a trilogy about these World War I veterans and their families, in their lives after the Great War.

Friday, August 27, 2004

The Flames of Rome

The Flames of Rome, by Paul L. Maier and first published in 1981, is an excellently researched historical novel about Rome in the days of Nero, including the years preceding and following the Great Fire of A.D. 64. Beginning in 47 A.D., in the last years of Claudius, the story relates the great political and moral corruption of Rome, and the sordid events surrounding those in Rome’s highest power. Here we meet Claudius’ third wife, Messalina, followed by his last wife, his niece Agrippina – and her son Domitius (later renamed Nero). Throughout the next twenty years, the story follows the life of Rome’s leaders, alternating between the story at Caesar’s palace – a cast including Nero, Agrippina, and the great philosopher Seneca – as well as the household of Aulus Plautius, one of Rome’s political leaders and war heroes. Special focus is placed on Aulus’ son-in-law, Flavius Sabinus (older brother to the future emperor Vespasian), who was Mayor of Rome during the Great Fire. After a many-character beginning, Sabinus in particular becomes the major focus and thrust of the story.

Christian characters also have a role, albeit a smaller one, in this story told from a Roman’s perspective. The fledgling Christian "cult" is first associated in their minds with the Jews, one of many religions allowed under Roman law, and of no consequence. One will not find serious, in-depth early Christian teaching here, either. A few of the Roman women are said to convert, but we really don’t see the events from their perspectives, or any details about the church meetings they attend. Yet throughout the twenty years of The Flames of Rome we get a nice chronology, a fascinating correlation of Roman history with many events listed in the book of Acts, plus the subsequent events up through Peter’s and Paul’s martyrdoms. It is insightful to learn, for instance, that Paul and his shipmates, after their shipwreck and wintering on Malta, most likely were in the same area, during the very week when Nero had his mother executed, near Naples in the early spring of A.D. 61.

Maier takes a serious approach to his historical work. All the characters named were actual known Romans. Also, unlike most historical fiction books, The Flames of Rome has extensive chapter-by-chapter notes. Of course, in dealing with such a topic -- ancient history of which so little is known -- the author does not hesitate to extrapolate what might have happened, complete with dialogue. The author takes pains to portray his best guess, but in the end we really don’t know the details of the Apostle Paul’s first trial before Nero – or how the fire in Rome really started. Yet through this fascinating blend of history and story, an intriguing plot develops, in which we see the major players of both the ruling Romans and the early Christian leaders.

Paul L. Maier’s The Flames of Rome is an excellent addition to good historical novels, ones that have good plots and well-researched history.

Thursday, July 1, 2004

Perpetua: Historical Fiction About an Early Church Martyr

Perpetua: A Bride, A Passion, A Martyr, by first-time author Amy Rachel Peterson, tells a fascinating story which is made all the more interesting because it is based on a true one. In 203 A.D., five recently converted Christians in Carthage were turned over to the authorities for the crime of converting to Christianity, during the reign of Septimius Severus. These five included 22-year-old Perpetua, a noble woman with a baby; also two slaves, Felicitas and Revocatus; and Secundus and Saturninus. Saturus, their leader/mentor, soon turned himself in, to join these catechumen (converted less than three years before) in martyrdom. Perpetua is perhaps most remembered because she kept a diary during her capture. Her written account, and a subsequent eyewitness account, tells us of the imprisonment and martyrdom, but little is known about Perpetua (or her companions) before that point.

This novel attempts to fill that unknown part, depicting with great detail a fictional story about Perpetua’s last three years of life. From a dramatic conversion experience, through early days of immaturity followed by spiritual growth and understanding, Perpetua approaches her destiny even as she experiences the normal stages of young life. The 19-year-old living at her parents’ home soon falls in love, marrying and becoming a mother to a young son.

Two of the other martyred Christians appear prominently: Saturninus as Perpetua’s brother, and Saturus as her husband. Though these relationships are most likely fictional, the story is interesting and thus involves the other martyred characters. Felicitas and Revocatus also have an interesting story, at first on the sidelines but revealed later on as martyrdom approaches. A cast of mostly fictional characters completes the world of ancient Carthage, as Perpetua in her daily life moves among the different social circles – her wealthy pagan friends from the years past along with her new friends (mostly from the lower social classes), that meet in small house-churches. The early church leader Tertullian is also present, a minor character (in terms of actual dialogue) but a major part of the early Christians’ lives, as they discuss his ideas.

The author has done an excellent job, too, with her historical research, blending in the social and religious dynamics of Carthage, creating a world that Perpetua might very well have experienced. The Punic influence still abides, harkening back to an earlier civilization (originally settled by Tyre) crushed by Rome. This later society speaks both Latin and Punic, and some of Punic descent mingle with the pure-blooded Romans. The author wonderfully describes Carthage’s plethora of gods and goddesses with a wry sort of humor, exposing the moral hypocrisy of the times. As one character puts it, a woman can partake in sexual immorality to please Venus at night, and then give offerings to Isis (for the women who deny such pleasures) the next morning: "please Venus at night, Isis in the morning." Other aspects of the story likewise reflect the Carthaginian spirit: festivals for their god Tanit, and even the dark underworld of pagans still practicing the old religion of child sacrifice.

The story’s outcome, martyrdom, is known and clear from the beginning; and perhaps the theme of impending martyrdom is overdone, as though the characters knew from the very beginning what would happen. Still, Christians of that time no doubt considered such things, given the hostile climate they faced in a land that did not understand such "freedom of religion" American concepts we so take for granted.

The author skillfully blends the fictional with the true story, fitting all the pieces together even to the ending, which is largely based on the actual document of "The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas." In a clever, interesting way the author creates rich details of real characters behind the names of those only mentioned in that document, such as Quintus and Jocundus. Perhaps to avoid publishing bad doctrine, this novel also offers a more theologically-sound twist on the real Perpetua’s dreams about her lost brother, Dinocrates, who had died of cancer at a young age. Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, a Passion is an excellent book that focuses attention on a story we don’t hear much about today, while enlightening us about ancient Rome -- a setting further back than most historical novels care to consider.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Above All Earthly Powers: Exciting Conclusion to "Songs in the Night"

Above All Earthly Powers, by Jack Cavanaugh, brings the International Historical Fiction series "Songs in the Night" to a conclusion. The first two books, While Mortals Sleep and His Watchful Eye, told the story of German Christians living in Nazi Germany during the 1940s, up to the end of World War II. Now we revisit the Schumacher family and the "Hadamar Six" children -- over 15 years later, in Communist East Germany.

A strong beginning – August 13 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up – introduces us to the East German characters and their lives in the post-war years. Elyse is now grown-up, and along with her mother (Mady), and Lisette, work in a Soviet-run shoe factory. Elyse and Lisette are vacationing on the west side when the wall goes up, and hence have their first meeting with Park (Colonel Parker, met at the end of the previous book). The scene’s ending seems unexpected and disappointing at first – after all, what East Germans, finding themselves on the free side when the wall happens to go up, would choose to go back behind the wall? Instead, the author tells a story of life behind the wall, which of course requires that the characters return to where the real action is. Still, the story returns often to those moments of freedom -- the great contrast between care-free West Berlin, characterized by CafĂ© Lorenz and its sweet confections, and the oppressive life of East Berlin.

We soon meet up with the Hadamar survivors – blind Tomcat, Down’s syndrome Viktor, club-footed Hermann, and Annie and Marlene – now residing at the government-run K-7 facility, under the watchful care of Herr Otto Witzell. Through some interesting plot developments, Tomcat and the others are reunited with Mady, Lisette and Elyse. Soon an even greater reunion of family and friends sets the group on a new mission: escape from Soviet-controlled East Berlin, a life no better than what they had in Hitler’s years.

None of the characters individually stand out as the main character, and we never get a look at strong character development, of really getting inside of one character’s head. Instead, we see the camaraderie between the old friends and their interactions, as the story alternately tells a little about each one. Much like a family reunion, none of the major characters are new, and all the minor characters have direct connections with the original group. Like true family, the reunited characters pick-up right where they left off. Most surprisingly, the younger Hadamar group, parted from the Schumacher family over 15 years before (when they were no more than 5 years old), still clearly remember everyone from those early years.

In keeping with this reunion-type theme, though, we see plenty of relationships resolved – Lisette and Konrad, Mady and her father, and even Mady and Park. We also see new relationships formed, particularly among the younger generation, including Elyse and Tomcat. Before the 1960s story ends, we have met up with all the surviving characters from the previous two books, including brief scenes with Gael, as well as Ernst and his French wife Rachelle. Willi, Konrad’s evil brother, is back for a stronger and even more menacing role.

Despite lack of character depth, the action plot and suspense keeps the story going, and neatly ties up all the loose ends. After wrapping up the 1960s story (1961 through 1963), the overall story of 1989 also has some surprises, and concludes the rest of the story (begun in the first pages of While Mortals Sleep when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989). Unlike the typical prologue in historical fiction novels, this story directly ties in with the past events, and so through the trilogy we follow the characters over the span of 50 years (1939 to 1989). Above All Earthly Powers brings the focus back full-circle, to the original vision of freedom and hope, of their beloved friend and mentor, Josef Schumacher.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Gudrun's Tapestry, By Joan Schweighardt

Reviewed by Rocco Lo Bosco

Set in the fifth century crumbling Roman Empire, Gudrun's Tapestry consists of two perfectly interwoven and elegantly conceived stories: Gudrun's heroic quest to single handily bring down Attila The Hun and her life among her tribe prior to that dangerous adventure, a life poignant and beautiful, culminating in the kind of cathartic tragedy the Greeks would have envied. Disguised as Ildico, Gudrun enters the dark and terrifying city of Attila bearing a brilliant war sword that is cursed and brings misfortune to its owner. She offers the sword as a gift to Attila who we meet in terrible glimpses as if his evil is too complex and profound to take in all at once. In brilliant strokes Schweighardt paints a deeply psychotic character so chillingly rendered that we might think the author met him in person. Attila "rewards" Gudrun by sparing her life, imprisoning her in a guarded hut where she spends much her days recounting the past that has shaped her quest.

During this past she lived as a young women among her people, cleaving close to her family and caring for her mentally challenged younger brother. She was helplessly in love with Sigurd, a young warrior destined for greatness, and from the very first moment we see them together, it becomes apparent that theirs will be a love story for the ages. The tender and painful encounters they share, the complexity of their situation, and their loyalty to each other and their tribe draw the reader into an ancient but utterly believable world and infuses Gudrun and Sigurd with so much life, that their story will be remembered long after the book is put aside. It is during this time that a series of intriguing twists of events put the sword in Gudrun¹s possession, and she hatches her plan to destroy Attila.

In the city of this most notorious War Lord, Gudrun is befriended by Attila's second-in-command, Edeco, a member of her people and a tormented soldier who is torn between his fearful loyalty to Attila and his growing love for Gudrun. Though a prisoner under Attila's constant suspicion, she is made to serve in his hall and eventually picked to be one of his many wives. With events in Attila's city closing around her, with the past weighing so heavily in her mind and the fate of her people in her hands, with Edeco's afflicted affection for her in razor sharp tension with Attila's desire to make her his wife, Gudrun must negotiate her way through monstrous adversity to realize her task.

Within the two main stories that comprise the book, there are stories within stories that further color this time and its characters. This gives Gudrun's Tapestry an epic feel. Yet the book never loses its intimacy, its timeless relevance, and amazingly with all this embarrassment of riches, it accomplishes something further still: it gives the reader a deep sense of an older consciousness that was ordered by values vastly different then the ones we now honor. Furthermore, the narrative makes this ancient consciousness both believable and respectable. This is a brilliant feat, and it culminates in the tapestry Gudrun weaves, composed of pictures that tell her story and the story of her people, a tapestry by which she becomes one with her tribe and its history.

Powered by a plot riddled with intrigue and betrayal, peopled by characters of astonishing depth and color, and rendered in a melodic yet powerful voice, Gudrun's Tapestry is a work as literary as they come while still being a page turner capable of competing with the best of the pot boilers sitting in the racks of airport stores. If you like to read in the evening, then start this book on a Friday night, otherwise you¹ll go to work bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. When you finish it, all too quickly, you¹ll have that feeling of being deeply satisfied, yet still wishing there were more pages.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

A Look at Some Historical Non-Fiction: The Kindertransport Story

One great benefit from reading historical fiction novels is learning about actual events, interesting stories that often are not generally known. Then, upon learning briefly about the event through an interesting novel, the full story introduced in the historical novel is just as compelling to read and learn about.
One such true-life story is the British "Kindertransport," in which some 10,000 refugee children from Nazi-controlled Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were accepted into British homes in the months before World War II broke out. Bodie Thoene’s "Zion Covenant" series, books 5 and 6 (Danzig Passage and Warsaw Requiem), introduce this true event from 1939, complete with German children -- whose parents are on Hitler’s black list—fleeing to England with the transport ship that left Danzig, Poland.

Many non-fiction books have come out over the years, telling about the actual Kindertransport. One such book is Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer. A companion book to a documentary movie, this book includes the first-hand accounts of several of these refugee children, as well as adults involved in the logistical operation and one of the foster parents.

In chronological sequence, beginning with the "old days" of life under Hitler, through the dark days of persecution, then adjustment to their new homes, and finally the aftermath of the Holocaust, Into the Arms of Strangers shares short accounts from each individual. Subsequent chapters follow the next phase of life, with the continuing interviews of each child/adult.

For a while this sequence makes it hard to remember and differentiate each story, especially since the stories are not presented in the same order within the chapters. I found myself frequently turning the pages back to the previous chapter, to find the last installment from this person. Later on, each individual and his or her story are easier to remember – and the stories themselves are as varied and distinct as the people themselves. As with any refugee or foster care program, some stories turned out great, others more tragically.

The book also includes a nice introduction, telling the background situation in Europe that led to the kindertransport, including many statistics and classifications of the types of Jews in the three affected countries – Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. This introductory material brought back to mind the background story in Thoene’s "Zion Covenant" series: secular Jews in Germany, many of them intermarrying with non-Jews in the years before Hitler – and in conflict with the more orthodox Polish Jews, some of whom had moved from Poland to Germany (and then rounded up by Hitler in the fall of 1938); blonde and even red-head Jews who did not "look" Jewish; the terrifying riots of Kristallnacht; and the difficulties with paperwork, the many Jews frantically trying to find another country that would take them.

The closing chapter brings the book’s purpose full-circle, as author Deborah Oppenheimer describes her journey of discovery into her own (recently deceased) mother’s story as one of the kindertransport refugees--and how her research led her to meet the many survivors interviewed in the book.

Into the Arms of Strangers is a fascinating look at the true event that has since inspired historical fiction plots – and made all the more interesting with the greatly detailed, true accounts. The book sets forth the "smaller" good things that come out of the horrific events, even such as World War II and the Holocaust, and what a few individuals could and did do. As one foster parent quoted in the book says, he could not save a nation, could not help them all--but he could help one child. I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the Holocaust and these children of the kindertransport.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Hadassah: Biblical Fiction, Queen Esther's Memoir

Author Tommy Tenney brings a fascinating biblical story to life with his new novel, Hadassah: One Night With the King. This novel blends Bible history--the Old Testament story of Esther—with the historical setting of Ancient Persia, for a more detailed account of Esther, Mordecai, King Xerxes and Haman, the major characters of the Bible story.

The book’s plot tie-in seems rather corny at first: a young woman in modern-day Israel brought into a secret room near the Dead Sea Scrolls, to read an ancient text kept within a family-line for thousands of years. The ancient text is written by none other than Queen Esther, her memoir to a young Jewish woman who finds herself a Queen-candidate, as Esther once had been.

The modern-day tie-in is kept to a minimum, though, and the story—mostly in first-person narrative, written to a specific person—soon begins. Hadassah starts out slowly, detailing Esther’s early life, but soon develops some interesting twists and character connections that become important later on. Even Haman has an interesting story, yet one perhaps not too far from the truth; as my study Bible notes, Bible scholars believe that Haman the Agagite may have been descended from the Amalekites, and specifically from King Agag.

Much of Hadassah’s story details life at the Persian Court, including her entry into the Queen-contest, the year of beauty treatments, and her developing relationship to God – always spelled without syllables (G-d and YHWH) in the style of the ancient Hebrews. The major events of the biblical story happen towards the end, for a climax that is well known yet exciting to read in detail, as the pieces fall into place and we enjoy anew Esther’s famous quote "If I Perish, I Perish."

The author presents an Esther not readily discernible from the pages of Scripture: one who comes to take her faith seriously even before becoming Queen, an Esther who did not enter the contest voluntarily. As with other Biblical fiction, several fictional characters are introduced, including Jesse, a lifelong friend; his mother Rachel; and head Eunuch, Hegai, who has charge of the Queen contestants.

The historical setting includes the basic life and culture of Ancient Persia – mainly the court life rather than that of the common folk. The capital, Susa, is impressive indeed, a place with seemingly endless riches as well as dangers and court intrigue. Hadassah also introduces actual Persian history with an account of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), a kingdom at its peak that experienced great defeat against the rising Greeks. A fictional element—a description of Haman’s symbol, the "twisted cross" (clearly a description of Hitler’s swastika)—has its basis (though not mentioned in the story) in early crucifixions done by the Medes and Persians.

The one detracting element in Hadassah: One Night With the King is its theology, which seems out of place for an Old Testament, pre-Christian era. Certainly the understanding of a God who knows and suffers pain, and can be addressed affectionately as "Father," is a New Testament concept not revealed in earlier days. This was also a time when the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with the believer, was a rarity – several hundred years before the events of Pentecost.

The overall story, though, is quite intriguing: memorable from the Bible tale, yet new and different, with an exciting plot and interesting look at this period of ancient history. Hadassah: One Night With the King is a nice addition to the genre of Biblical Historical Fiction.

Monday, March 15, 2004

A Fragile Design: The Mill Girls of New England

A Fragile Design, by Tracie Peterson and Judith Miller, continues the story of the "Mill Girls" of early 19th century New England. The first story, Daughter of the Loom, took place in 1828 in Lowell, Massachusetts, site of several early textile mills. The second story takes place a few years later, in 1831, with Arabella Newberry as the new main character.

Arabella and her friend Daughtie flee their commune life with the Shakers in Canterbury, and soon arrive in Lowell and find work as "mill girls." Through Arabella’s life we learn much about the Shakers cult: a feminist belief system based on a religious notion (a God-head that has both father and mother); the repudiation of marriage and normal family roles – everyone is equal to each other, all brothers and sisters. The Shakers also practiced "dancing in the spirit," and took in charity cases such as abandoned, orphan children.

As with many of today’s historical novels, the main female character is decidedly feminist, and zealous for women’s equal rights (in this case, especially education and access to a library) – a notion seemingly befitting more modern times than women of the 1830s. Yet the Shaker background fits and explains Arabella’s more socially radical ideas better than many others of this genre. Arabella and John Farnsworth’s antagonistic nephew Taylor Manning provide most of the relational turmoil of this novel – though Taylor seems much less likeable than Matthew Cheever. Still, Arabella and Taylor’s differences (in worldviews) combined with their independent, fighting natures, provide great conflict and interest. Like many real-life young people, the two attracted characters fight like "cats and dogs" at times, but later realize their true feelings.

A Fragile Design has less commentary on the actual working conditions, with more focus on life in the community as a whole. Indeed, sometimes during the reading it seemed that the characters had plenty of free time on their hands. Certainly many of the characters – all except Arabella and Daughtie, and the other boarding girls (who are really in the background, minor characters) – don’t even work in the mills. The many subplots involving these other characters – including a new Irish stonemason, Liam Donohue, hired to build a new Catholic church – keep the overall story going.

Historical characters include Kirk Boott, again in interactions with Matthew Cheever and the community, though to a lesser extent than the first novel. Another minor, but historical, character is Reverend Edson, Boott’s appointed minister for the St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – another true part of this historical fiction story.

A Fragile Design stands mostly on its own, as a story that could be read without knowledge of its predecessor. Many of the characters, though, are familiar from the previous novel. Addie is still running the boardinghouse, still involved with John Farnsworth. Matthew and Lilly Cheever, the main characters from the first novel, are also prominent in the town – and now expecting their first child. The old villain William Thurston is back, to stir up new trouble in the Irish "Acre."

A Fragile Design successfully develops a new plot, and many subplots, yet manages to wrap all the loose ends from this and the previous book, for an exciting and page-turning story, with great mystery and suspense building towards the conclusion. So far, the "Bells of Lowell" series is a good read, with exciting stories amidst this turbulent historical era, pre-Civil War New England, and the many changes brought on by the industrial revolution. A third novel in the series, These Tangled Threads, has since been released, with more emphasis on Arabella’s friend Daughtie.

Sunday, February 1, 2004

Back Roads to Bliss: The Canadian Frontier

Author Ruth Glover continues her "Saskatchewan Saga" series about Bliss, a small community in Saskatchewan, Canada (near Prince Albert), in the late 19th century, with the next installment -- Back Roads to Bliss.
It is the spring of 1898, when we meet the spirited young Allison Middleton, a spoiled wealthy British girl. She attempts to elope, is caught, and banished to Canada as a disobedient child who brought shame to her family.

The story immediately sweeps the reader into Allison’s adventures and intrigues, as we see her first scheming to elope with a "forbidden" young man, then rebellious and adventurous as she contemplates a new life in an unknown, exciting world. We sympathize with Allison as her world starts falling apart and she finds herself abandoned in a strange land. Yet throughout the story is the power and testimony of a loving God and His abundant provision and faithfulness.

The historical backdrop is rich with details, especially Gretna Green weddings (just over the border from England, in Scotland) and the "Remittance men." The story also shares the flavor of simple family and small town life, in a place named for that special state of soul and mind … "Bliss." The pioneer way of life is evident, too: railroad towns and the daily work and hardships of clearing out the "bush" country. At a time when the United States was mostly settled, much of Canadian land was still available for the taking – along with the hard work and harsh winter climate.

Back Roads to Bliss conveys the spirit of these true pioneers of the Canadian northwest, with a hometown familiarity of beloved characters who no doubt were featured in previous books in the "Bliss" series. We meet Molly Morrison and Parker Jones -- yet they are soon out of the picture, and the town-folk of Bliss adjust to life without their pastor. Back Roads to Bliss has its share of light moments, even humor, as shown through the idiosyncrasies of ordinary people.

The story reads as a stand-alone novel, introducing new and old characters in a flowing narrative and interesting story. Yet the ending begs for a sequel – what happens next for Allison, and the other characters of Bliss, Canada? Back Roads to Bliss is an excellent addition to historical fiction about the pioneering days of the Canadian West.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Toward the Sunrise: Three Daughters in World War II

Judith Pella’s "Daughters of Fortune" series continues, with the third installment, Toward the Sunrise. Continuing where the story left off in Somewhere A Song, this book covers the time period from the summer of 1942 until the war’s conclusion three years later.
Toward the Sunrise assumes that the reader has read the previous books, and even that one remembers the specific events from the previous book. In the year since the last book was published, I had forgotten several of the specifics, such as Johnny Shanahan’s death and the latest results in the search for Cameron’s half-brother Semyon. Yet the narrative moves along without one needing all the details--and some past information, such as results of the search for Semyon, is mentioned later on.

Through the three sisters Cameron, Blair, and Jackie, the author covers World War II from three perspectives: Russia and the invasion of France; the guerilla war and POW camps in Southeast Asia; and the Japanese-American internment camps, including the riot at Manzanar on December 6, 1942. As indicated on the book cover, Cameron is arrested and sent home from Russia, and Blair captured by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp – but these events happen relatively late in the story.

I was deeply impressed by the book’s balance of varying political perspectives. So many people today know about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII--and Toward the Sunrise covers that angle and mixed-race tensions and prejudices. Yet the author goes beyond that, to also tell the other side of the story: how the Japanese cruelly tortured their American prisoners, both military and civilians.

Toward the Sunrise shows marked character development in all three daughters as they are touched by the tragedy of war. This installment also has more than its share of sadness and grief, for a greater tear-jerker than the previous two installments. Yet through the suffering, the story resolves several relationship conflicts.

I especially enjoyed learning that the "Daughters of Fortune" series will continue, with at least one more novel coming out in the fall of 2004. Unlike many World War II-era historical novels, this series will continue past the end of the war, showing the family’s lives in the post-war years.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

Beyond the Sacred Page: William Tyndale's Bible

Jack Cavanaugh’s Beyond the Sacred Page continues his "Book of Books" series, which began with Glimpses of Truth. The previous story told of the Wycliffe translation, in late 14th century England. Now we move forward 150 years, to 1535 and Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament.
It is the well-known time of Henry VIII, and the last year of Queen Anne Boleyn’s life. The Protestant Reformation, begun less than 20 years before in Germany, is the big topic of discussion throughout Europe.

Meg Foxe happens upon one of Tyndale's New Testaments, and finds solace and comfort in its words. The only problem is, the book is illegal, and her husband Pernell is a dedicated heretic hunter. God’s word threatens to divide husband and wife, as it changes each of their lives.

A refreshing change from many historical fiction novels, in which the protagonists are young adults under age 25, Beyond the Sacred Page features not-so-young adults. Though they have no children, Pernell and Meg have been married 15 years, and are now in their 30s and 40s. So the story brings out different themes than the typical young-adult adventure romance. Here we see the marital struggles of trust and communication, and its opposite—deception, secrecy, and the resulting distance in a previously close relationship.

Beyond the Sacred Page includes many historical figures, including Bishop John Stokesley, and members of Henry VIII’s court -- particularly the tragic Anne Boleyn. Through Meg we visit the court, the London Tower, and Anne Boleyn’s execution along with her final words.

Though the story is about William Tyndale’s translation, Tyndale himself is in the background. Brief scenes at the beginning, told from Pernell Foxe’s view, tell of Tyndale’s shipwreck, and his later capture by betrayer Henry Philips. Beyond that, however, we never see or hear from Tyndale, locked away to await his sentence. Instead, the focus is on Tyndale’s work, the New Testament, and its impact on the ordinary men and women of England.

As with the prequel Glimpses of Truth, this novel includes author’s notes, including comments on which parts are historical and which characters real vs. fiction. The sum of the story and these historical notes makes for a great historical fiction story about this often-overlooked yet turbulent period, when the English-language Bible emerged from the Medieval Latin-only time.