Thursday, October 27, 2005

Finding Anna: The Story Behind a Beloved Hymn

Many people have heard the tragic story behind the hymn “It is Well With My Soul.” Horatio Gates Spafford had suffered great business loss in the Chicago Fire of 1871, then opened up his home to help the needy after the fire, in his work with evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Two years later, in 1873, the family decided to take a vacation to Europe, and Horatio Gates sailed ahead of his wife and four daughters, to meet them there. The ocean liner carrying his wife and four young daughters sank in the middle of the Atlantic. His wife alone survived, and Gates soon learned from a telegram message: Saved alone. Shortly after this great loss, Spafford penned the words of the hymn, beginning with the words “When Peace Like a River attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll.”

Finding Anna, by Christine Schaub, is the first in a new series called “Music of the Heart.” Each story in this series is an expanded, fictionalized account of the characters behind a great hymn, beginning with the story of the Spafford family. Beginning with the fire in October 1871, the story starts with great suspense and horror as it describes the raging inferno. Gates is out amongst the crowd watching the fire at first, then is caught up in the panic and rush of people fleeing as the fire amazingly crosses the Chicago River. Strong winds push the fire closer and closer, and Gates narrowly escapes, after retrieving the most important business papers, yet realizing his great financial loss.

The fire and its aftermath are well incorporated into the story, and accounts of destruction, the homeless refugees, and the rebuilding effort seem especially relevant today, in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, a similar –though on a much larger scale-- disaster.

Soon the emphasis changes to the domestic scene, and especially to Gates' wife, Anna. We are told that Gates is busy, working long, hard hours in the rebuilding effort. Yet we see little of him, and instead read of his wife Anna and the domestic issues with servants and children. Dwight L. Moody is introduced, with some good dialogue and interaction with other characters, including one lost young man; but it is his wife, Emma, that we see more of, along with Anna – complete with her gardening project, and her loneliness and depression. Clearly this story was written for women readers, with its seemingly undue emphasis on the wives rather than the important historical characters (D.L. Moody and Horatio Gates Spafford). From Anna's perspective, we see the family falling apart under the stress of constantly helping others in need. No doubt this version of the story greatly exaggerates what actually happened in the Spafford family, but it does move the story along to explain what actually did happen: that they decided to take a much-needed vacation in the fall of 1873.

I was troubled by the author’s stated disregard for historical accuracy and research. In the book’s forward -- after briefly mentioning that the story and the actual facts uncovered in her research turned out not to agree -- the author glibly quotes her editor’s remark that if the story is good, the reader won’t care if it’s true or not. Then the author simply says that she won’t tell which parts are and are not true, that it’s up to the reader to guess! Certainly the story is always important, to any book, whether historical, futuristic or contemporary. However, the historical fiction genre is especially characterized by good research, and a successful blending of entertainment with education, by which the reader learns something about the historical events. Even within the sub-genre of evangelical Christian historical fiction, most authors show more serious attention to the history, often with notes at the end elaborating on which story aspects and characters are historical.

To its credit, Finding Anna does include the words and music of the hymn “It is Well With My Soul,” and brief notes about what happened to Horatio and Anna in their later years. Many readers of the audience, primarily adult women, will no doubt enjoy the book for its emotional, woman-focused emphasis. However, such callous disregard for the historical part of a historical fiction book will not sit well with serious historical fiction readers. If the author wants to just write a good story (and who cares if the history part is accurate or not), she (and her editor) should stick with contemporary fiction.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Garfield's Train: Personal Presidential History

Garfield’s Train, by Feather Schwartz Foster, brings an entertaining story, rooted in the author’s expertise --U.S. Presidents. About President Garfield (1881), who was assassinated during the summer of his first term, the story is told in an interesting, informal manner, as a story-within-a-story.

Katharine Louise (“Kate”) is a modern-day 79-year-old woman, relating the story of a train trip with her maternal grandmother (Louise Dunbar) when she was 23 in 1947. She accompanies her grandmother to see a dying friend, Mollie Brown. During the trip to California, and again on the return trip, Gran tells the story of her own upbringing and relationship with her friend Mollie Brown during the late 1870s and early 1880s in New Jersey. The Dunbar family live year-round in Long Branch, New Jersey, a summer vacation home to the many famous and wealthy, including the Garfield family. As Gran relates, Long Branch was the "Gilded Strand" of the Gilded Age.

We soon learn that Mollie Brown’s maiden name was Garfield, and that she was the daughter of President Garfield. From this point, the story becomes even more exciting. Through the double first-person narrative, we get to know the various members of the Dunbar family and some details about the Garfield family. An early section of the book, in which Gran names off all the various relatives in the Dunbar family tree, is confusing and overwhelming—a visual family tree diagram would help. After a while, though, it becomes clear that only a few of the many named characters are relevant to the story; the reader can focus on that part rather than try to keep up with the larger Dunbar family

As with Foster’s previous book, First Ladies, this book includes excellent research and attention to historical details, including the political power structure of the day. Other famous characters have a part, including former President Grant and even Susan B. Anthony. Some narrative parts, where Louise tells what she was aware of at age 13, seem rather unrealistic for the average girl of that age to recall – especially after “Gran’s” self-admission that she really had not been that knowledgeable of politics (and Kate notes the contradiction, too!). Yet the author also skillfully inserts “notes” sections with additional material at various places: material that Kate gathered, either in 1947 or more recently.

Garfield’s Train is another entertaining and educational historical novel from Feather Schwartz Foster. The historical material is presented in a fun way, nothing like a dry history textbook, in a rather short novel (226 pages) that can be read quickly -or not so quickly-- and enjoyed by all. The historical insights and trivia bring the period alive--in all its glamour as well as political dirt-- to remind us also how little some things have changed.

Friday, October 7, 2005

Margaret's Print Shop: A Novel of the Anabaptist Reformation

Margaret’s Print Shop, by Elwood Yoder, tells the story of the 16th century Anabaptist Reformation in narrative form. Set in 1525 in Strasbourg, Germany (now part of France), the story’s main character is Margaret, who runs a print shop. It is the early days of Gutenberg’s printing press, when various groups learn to get their messages out more easily, through the printed word. Margaret takes many print jobs throughout the book, to print various pamphlets for the Anabaptist reform group; along the way she is influenced by their ideas.

The other main characters include Balthaser Beck, who later marries Margaret, and several key Anabaptist figures from history: Conrad Grebel, Christman Kenlin, George Blaurock, and others. In fact, nearly all the characters named are actual historical figures, except three minor characters noted up front by the author. Margaret’s last name is never given, presumably because her name (before marriage to Beck) is not known.

Unlike many historical novels, the subject matter IS the history itself, with the characters meeting and discussing their theological views on various subjects, and even commenting on the latest news from Luther and Zwingli. The chapter names provide a guideline to the book’s topics, including marriage for preachers and adult believers’ baptism (re-baptism, hence the name given the group, Anabaptists). Other history from the time includes a peasant revolt, and the general persecution the Anabaptists faced, even from the other Reformers.

Margaret’s Print Shop is clearly written for church history enthusiasts, and especially for people belonging to the modern Anabaptist groups (Mennonites and Brethren groups), who would have more familiarity with the names in the story. As a story, this book is more serious and educational, rather than page-turning suspense, action or romance. The characters themselves lack depth and defined characteristics. The ideas themselves, and the history surrounding the ideas, are the main focus, with the characters secondary; their purpose is to explain and clarify the ideas.

Still, Margaret’s Print Shop is an excellent narrative look at the Anabaptist reformation, with a scope appropriate to the book – events in and around Strasbourg in 1525. Yoder has clearly done his research, and includes maps and a list of characters, to help the reader with the story’s context. The author’s notes at the end are helpful too, to learn what happened to Margaret, Beck, and several of the other characters.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

O'Brien's Desk: Review

Reviewed by Keri Minehart

O'Brien's Desk is the debut novel by author Ona Russell. Some of the issues addressed in the book—political corruption, drug addiction, anti-Semitism and homophobia—could easily be ripped from today’s headlines, but when Russell read of them, the newspapers they came from were anything but current. The clippings she pored over were from the 1920s, hidden for more than 70 years in a dusty pile of scrapbooks. These articles—chronicling the life of O’Brien O’Donnell, a highly public yet secretive judge—became the foundation for Russell’s first historical mystery, O’Brien’s Desk, hailed by NPR’s Richard Lederer as “terrific” and “riveting” and by novelist Anne Perry as “an intriguing and thoroughly researched story that gives us insight into the moral dilemmas of 20th Century America.”

The year is 1923, and O’Brien O’Donnell, called Obee by his friends, is a well-loved judge in Toledo, Ohio. His progressive politics and humanitarian strides make him one of Ohio’s most admired figures. At 59, he has recently married and become a father for the first time. Soon after the birth of his daughter, Obee receives a chilling blackmail letter that takes him to the brink of insanity. From his hospital bed, he turns to his trusted colleague, Sarah Kaufman (who was also a real person), for help. Sarah is a woman ahead of her time—a single, Jewish, career woman of exceptional intelligence and strength. She is eager to stop the blackmailer from ruining Obee’s chances for re-election and launches an investigation to clear his name. In doing so, she risks her own life to save his.

An interesting note about O’Brien’s Desk is that the real-life O'Brien O'Donnell was Russell's grandfather-in-law. When her mother-in-law passed away, she came across O’Donnell’s scrapbooks, and she began work on her first novel based on information she gained from them. The scrapbooks weren’t her only source however; Russell did meticulous research to make the story more authentic.

Equal parts rich history lesson and can’t-set-down mystery, this novel has already left a wake of enthusiastic readers in its path. Many of them are eagerly anticipating Russell’s next novel in the series, set during the Scopes “Monkey” trial, also with Sarah Kaufman as the heroine. Russell's attention to detail, especially in describing 1920s Ohio and its political climate, add to the quality of the novel. O'Brien's Desk would be a great read for any fan of historical fiction.

More information about this book:
Sunstone Press, April 2004