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.

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