Thursday, June 29, 2006

Faith of My Fathers: Biblical Fiction about King Manasseh's Reign

Faith of My Fathers, by Lynn Austin, continues the “Chronicles of the Kings” series about the Old Testament kings. After covering the life of Hezekiah in the previous three books, Faith of My Fathers begins the story of the next generation: Hezekiah’s son Manasseh, and Joshua son of the palace administrator Eliakim.

Manasseh's anger at his father’s death soon leads him to pagan idols and sorcery. Eliakim and the prophet Isaiah are soon executed and a new set of characters takes the stage. The main theme of this book involves Joshua’s anger and hatred toward his former friend, Manasseh, and how Joshua deals with his experiences: at first angry with God, but later returning to God and helping God’s people. Other fictional characters have similar experiences to the characters in previous books, such as Joshua’s sister Dinah and a maidservant named Miriam.

As with the previous books in this series, the historical background is not extremely well developed. The characters generally think like modern-day Christians, complete with a New Testament understanding of God as a loving and forgiving Father. The story itself could take place in any Christian era, with its emphases on persecution, suffering, and looking in repentance toward a loving and sovereign God. That said, Faith of My Fathers does offer good dialogue and many characters with their various subplots. This story is entertaining, with the good page-turning suspense of a good action novel, including a strong climax and a happy ending for the “good guys.”

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story involves an item from Jewish history with some basis in facts gathered from the archeological records of Egypt. As the author notes at the end, apparently some Levites and priests did leave Israel during King Manasseh’s reign and settled a colony in Elephantine Island, Egypt; they may well have taken the Ark with them. Faith of My Fathers skillfully blends this idea into an exciting action plot, to be continued in the next book (Among the Gods).

Overall, Faith of My Fathers offers an excellent action-adventure book with Bible characters. Fans of Bible fiction will find this book adequate, as well as a good continuation of the characters and families from the previous three books of “Chronicles of the Kings.”

Friday, June 2, 2006

Waiting for Summer's Return: German Mennonite Immigrants

Waiting for Summer’s Return, a new historical novel by Kim Vogel Sawyer, takes place in eastern Kansas among a community of German Mennonites in 1894. Summer Steadman is the sole survivor of her family that had traveled from Boston, bound for Oklahoma but stricken with typhoid near the town of Gaeddert, Kansas. With her husband and four children buried, Summer lingers in town but finds no reason to eat, no reason to live. But local resident and widower Peter Ollenburger needs a tutor for his injured 10-year-old son, Thomas, and offers the job to Summer, a “learned woman.”

Throughout the story, the point of view alternates between Peter, Summer, and even young Thomas. Gradually we learn more about Summer; her grief early in the book is perhaps a bit overdone, making the story a bit slow and depressing to get through at first. But as time and pleasant experiences work in the character’s heart to heal her, so the story itself improves and becomes more uplifting. The final outcome seems certain (surely Peter and Summer will get together) yet the story takes a while to get there. Along the way the main characters and their relationships are well-developed and realistic, and as in real life some things take time. Summer must first heal from her grief, and afterwards consider her future. Peter must consider if he can love another woman as he had loved his Elsa.

The story also reflects the closed-community of German Mennonites, a people who have fled persecution in other countries and who now tend to keep to themselves, not welcoming outsiders. Here again, the townspeople develop and mature, from a rather hostile, suspicious mindset at first, until they gradually open up, a few families at a time, to the newcomer. The author also shows her knowledge of at least some German language. Peter Ollenburger, in particular, talks much of the time in German. As a new immigrant might well do, often his thoughts come out first in his native tongue, after which he translates as best he can – and often learns new English words in the process.

Waiting for Summer’s Return is an enjoyable historical novel, filled with great characters who grow and learn from each other. This story also gives a fresh look at the life of late-19th century immigrants and their community, and a glimpse at the history of German Mennonites in Kansas.