Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Strength of His Hand: Chronicles of the Kings, #3

Lynn Austin continues her “Chronicles of the Kings” series with The Strength of His Hand, the third in this series. This novel covers Hezekiah’s later years as king, beginning with his serious illness from which he miraculously recovered and was granted another 15 years. Hezekiah’s testing, his pride during a meeting with the Babylonians, and further Assyrian threats also enter this story, crafted around yet another conflict – Hezekiah’s idolatrous wife Hephzibah, and the lack of an heir to Hezekiah’s throne.

Early in the story, Hezekiah confronts the possibility of not having an heir, and considers various scriptures and their meanings. Thus he learns that God’s promise to David – that David would always have a descendant on the throne – does not necessarily mean that Hezekiah must have a son to continue the line. When Hephzibah again urges Hezekiah to take another wife, in hopes of producing an heir, Hezekiah considers again the Jewish law that a king must not have “many” wives and concludes that not having “many” does not mean only one. Soon thereafter, however, Hezekiah takes ill and nearly dies as a result of an accident. As with so much of the story, the author fills in the gaps, providing an exciting story full of tension and betrayal to explain the cause of Hezekiah’s illness referenced in the Bible.

The Strength of His Hand picks up plot threads and characters developed in the previous two books, so that again Hezekiah himself has a rather minor part. Jerusha is back, now as Eliakim’s wife and a mother to several children. The conflict between Eliakim and Shebna continues, along with embellished accounts, based on verses from the book of Isaiah, regarding Shebna’s monument to himself and the subsequent exaltation of Eliakim.

Overall, the story presented is entertaining and dramatic, along with the message of God’s forgiveness and compassion. However, in several aspects the story remains shallow, especially in its poor application of Old Testament scripture. For example, scripture passages from Isaiah about Israel as the barren wife, rejoicing in the many children given her – clearly understood by Biblical scholars as referring to the returning exiles from Babylon almost 200 years later – are completely misinterpreted and applied directly to Hephzibah for her own personal meaning. The characters present to each other not an Old Testament understanding (the historical setting), nor even a New Testament one, but a weak, modern-day “God loves you” theology. The “gospel” presented to Hephzibah -- who has worshipped an idol and vowed to sacrifice her first child to Asherah – is the weak, modern-day evangelical message that she is a child of God and God forgives her, and so she must forgive herself. Nothing is said about repentance, or an understanding of who God is (versus the idols) including His sovereignty and holiness – much less the required sacrifices for sin that were still required of His people under the Mosaic law during this time.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Trial of Abraham Hunt: An American Christmas Story

The Trial of Abraham Hunt: An American Christmas Story, by Michael A. Davis, combines a lawyer’s style of writing (the courtroom) with a thorough presentation of a slice of history from the American Revolution. Abraham Hunt was a wealthy merchant in Trenton, New Jersey in 1776, and a strong patriot in the early days of the American Revolution. Yet he signed a statement of loyalty to the British in December 1776, and then entertained the British troops occupying Trenton, including giving a Christmas Eve party to the British in the hours while Washington secretly moved his men across the Delaware River. George Washington’s surprise attack the next morning revived the Revolutionary spirit, and Abraham Hunt’s actions played a role as well: he could very easily have warned the British, but did not.
Though nothing ever happened to Hunt after his pledge of loyalty to the British, Davis injects a fictional “trial” to explain to a modern-day audience all the details of events during this part of the Revolution. Davis’ story takes the form of a courtroom drama transcript, in which we read each character’s dialog part. The dialog is well written, though the very use of this style makes the content – conveying the events to 21st century readers -- rather unrealistic. In an actual court trial of the times, the characters would not elaborate in such detail about things that were commonly known to all. Also, at various points in the dialog one side or the other “objects,” and the objection would normally be valid; but since the real purpose is to enlighten modern day readers, of course the characters are allowed to elaborate and explore seemingly non-relevant material.
Though at first the story is hard to get into, the material draws itself out for an interesting and educational reading, complete with photocopies of original (though very hard to read) documents from the time. Not surprisingly, we soon learn that indeed Abraham Hunt’s actions were not traitorous but actually helped the Patriotic cause. (After all, in reality nothing happened to Hunt, and thus his contemporaries at least understood what was really going on even if later historians have not.) Still, the story is interesting, a little-known episode of the American Revolution. The Trial of Abraham Hunt: An American Christmas Story is a nice, brief account (182 pages, including photocopies of original documents) concerning the amazing, Providential events of Christmas 1776.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Farewell Rhilochan: The Scottish Highland Clearances

Farewell Rhilochan, by Verna MacLean, is a historical fiction novel about a group of Scottish Highlanders uprooted from their homes during the Highland Clearances of the early 19th century. Kathleen MacFarlane is a young, uneducated woman living with her father and dying mother in the northern Scotland village of Rhilochan in 1806. The village soon receives word that the Lord and Lady Stafford, who own their land, want them removed in a week – so they can raise larger sheep on their land. The Highlanders are forced off their land by military might and their homes are burnt. Like so many other Highlanders, the villagers are soon scattered, and sent to inhospitable land: rocky areas with poor soil, near the coast.
Kathleen suffers the hardships, and struggles with feelings of anger and vengeance against such great cruelty and injustice, as her family connections are severed. Her ailing mother dies during the journey to the rocky land, but the landlord is unwilling to delay their departure even for a burial, and then prohibits the family from returning to bury her at the family gravesite. Her brother-in-law Charles soon departs for the city to find work, while her father has nothing to live for in the new place – and they will all soon starve. The Highlanders also face unfriendly neighbors, and must face the unpleasant outside world: the truth of how others view them and their backward ways.
Farewell Rhilochan presents a compelling story, rich in well-defined characters and strong conflicts, generally from the outside world (including their minister, a clergy man more interested in helping the rich landlords and berating the people he is supposed to help) and especially the villainous Henderson, who oversees their forced move. We see how even those who have left the Highland clans to do service for the military are poorly treated, even forced to help clear their own people off their land.
The Highlanders’ lifestyle is always present, in the background yet included in various references throughout the story. A glossary at the book’s end defines several terms used, such as “burn” to describe a brook or stream. Each chapter begins with a short quote about the Highlanders and the clearance, and the quote’s source – a good way to show the author’s bibliography. Throughout the story we learn of the Highlanders’ illiteracy, their superstitions, “the Evil Eye,” their practice of keeping animals in their own homes, and even their rather raunchy wedding traditions. All these are mentioned from the Highlanders’ perspective, and not elaborated on. Still, I could relate at least some of the material to the novel Christy (Catherine Marshall), in which an outsider describes customs of the Highlanders 100 years later in East Tennessee. Farewell Rhilochan describes the historical situation that brought many of the Highlanders to the U.S., where later generations continued in the old ways. For Kathleen and her friends, however, it appears that the Highlanders and their way of life are being eradicated and scattered; some go to Nova Scotia, while some learn to adjust to life in Wick. Yet there is hope, for a new life, and Kathleen finds unexpected friendship and kindness even in the midst of tragedy.
Farewell Rhilochan is a well-written story, educational and interesting, with strong, likeable characters. Through this novel the reader can learn more about, and more fully appreciate, the story of the uprooted Highlanders and their plight.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

God's Hammer: A Story From the Dark Ages

Eric Schumacher’s novel, God’s Hammer, is based on the fascinating true story of Hakon Haroldsson, king of Norway during the 10th century. King Harold Fairhair of Norway sent his youngest son, Hakon, to the court of King Athelstan of England (then called “Engla-lond”), where Hakon was raised and educated as a Christian. Several years later, Harold died and left his kingdom to his eldest son, Eric (known as Eric Bloodaxe). Eric killed his other brothers and ruled cruelly and recklessly. Harold’s friends thus sent messengers to England, to bring young Hakon (now a youth of about 16) back to Norway. Hakon became king and ruled for 25 years (935 – 960), introducing reforms with great success except in one area; Hakon was unable to bring Christianity to the Norse pagans.

The brief account above can be readily learned through online encyclopedias, though with few details. Schumacher brings his great research and knowledge of the Dark Ages into this novel, expanding on the known story with a wonderful “coming of age” account of young Hakon. Taking as its subject Hakon's earlier years, the story is well written and easy-to-read, with a character we can easily relate to--whether as a young, frightened 8-year-old sent far from home, or the teen who would have preferred to stay in England yet recognizes his destiny to rule his own people. We see how the Christian faith was then practiced, though the author makes no external comments, good or bad—the events speak for themselves. Yet in spite of the bad aspects—an official baptism declares someone a Christian, rather than a pagan, regardless of whether the person has even heard the gospel message—the moral and civilizing aspects of Christianity in England clearly strike a contrast with the monstrous, barbaric acts of the pagan Northmen. Through young Hakan’s experiences, we witness his maturing from a rebellious, if sheltered, child, to someone with a tender heart of compassion, truly horrified and sorrowful, when he sees firsthand the barbaric deeds of his own people.

God’s Hammer especially brings out Hakan’s own struggles of conscience: the desire to “fit in” and be accepted by his people, versus his Christian repulsion at the pagan rituals such as wishing on the Yule log, and human sacrifice. As he once tells his young friend, Toralv, he “will not change” his beliefs. Yet time and again he faces a new political reality and must admit the truth of (his counselor) Sigurd’s political savvy.

The historical research clearly shines through, in both the secular and religious aspects of life for the English and the Northmen. God’s Hammer has a good narrative flow, including action and dialogue, with the political / historical backdrop of the time and place: the English, Danes and Northmen. I highly recommend this historical fiction novel, both for its entertaining story and historical information about specific events from a time little known and studied today, the Dark Ages.