Ruth Axtell. Her Good Name: A Novel. Chicago: Moody Publishers (River North Fiction), 2012.
I would like to thank Moody Publishers for my review copy of this book. See here for Moody’s page about it.
Her Good Name is a novel that is set in late nineteenth
century Maine. A key theme in the book is the romantic feelings between
Espy, who is from a lower-economic class, and Warren Brentwood, who is
from the town’s upper economic class and is being groomed by his father
to take over the family lumber company. Espy and Warren are from two
different worlds, and they suppress their feelings for each other. But
they work together at a recently-formed church group that is designed to
help the poor of the community. Espy brings her sister Angela and a
couple of her friends to the group, and Warren brings his shy sister
Annalise and some of his rich friends. Elements of the two factions
clash, and yet the two factions need each other for the group to be
effective. While the rich members are instrumental in raising funds from
their rich acquaintances, the poorer members can deliver those funds to
the poor without sounding patronizing or condescending.
Espy takes a housekeeping job at the home of a local professor, the
respected Mr. Stockton. She appreciates that Mr. Stockton allows her to
borrow books from his extensive library, and that he gives her
fascinating insights about the books that she reads. Not only does that
open her eyes to a world of learning, but she also hopes that the job
will allow her to be closer to Warren, and that the professor’s tutorial
of her will help her to become good enough for Warren. When Mr.
Stockton makes an unwanted pass at Espy, however, and Mrs. Stockton
catches him kissing her, Mrs. Stockton spreads the rumor that Espy was
making advances at the professor. Espy leaves town in humiliation and
goes to another town, where she finds refuge at an accepting Christian
mission house. There, the pastor and his wife listen sympathetically to
her story, provide her with the tools to get a job, and help her to
grow as a Christian.
Meanwhile, Warren has a dream and is feeling a call to the ministry,
which goes against his father’s plan for his life. Warren goes to
seminary, but he struggles to find a vibrant relationship with God
there. Will Warren pursue the ministry, or will he take over his
father’s business and marry Christina, a local rich girl whom her
parents want him to marry? What’s more, what will become of his
relationship with Espy? How will he react to her scandal? Will they be
It is a beautiful story, and I cried during parts of it. One part
that I found particularly moving was when Espy presented a resounding
defense of the poor of the community, after some of the rich people of
the church group had implied that the poor were shiftless. Espy said
that the poor work hard and struggle to get by. And, when the minister
and his wife at the local mission house were sharing the love of Christ
with Espy, I thanked God for the church.
If there was one character whom I loved the most, it was Warren’s
sister, Annalise. I could identify with Annalise’s shyness, but I also
admired that she was an accepting person, even though she was in the
upper-class, and a number of her rich relatives and acquaintances looked
down their noses on Espy and Espy’s social circle. If there was a
character who intrigued me, it was Warren’s father, who owned a
prominent lumber company. Warren’s father was quite judgmental, and yet
there was a side of him that could commiserate with people’s humanity,
even if they were in a lower economic class. This side manifested
itself very rarely, yet it was there.
I decided to read the book because I was hoping that it could provide
me with insights on forgiveness. It did not do that as much as I
hoped: Espy essentially asks Jesus to come into her heart, her heart is
strangely warmed, and her joy then rests in Christ rather than how other
people treat her; at the same time, she still feels badly when she
returns to her home town and continues to experience rejection. For a
second, I thought that Espy’s religious experience was making her into a
flat character, but her feelings after her return home convinced me
that she was still human.
A question that I had as I read the book concerned the religious
views of the author, Ruth Axtell. The book strikes me as rather
charismatic, especially near the end, as the minister at the mission
house stresses the Book of Acts and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
That made me wonder what Ruth Axtell’s view was of the religiosity that
was in the book before Espy came to the mission house: the church group,
the pastor in Espy’s town who is kind and devout yet initially does not
rush to Espy’s defense, etc. Is Ruth Axtell’s point that the church
group and the pastor of Espy’s town need the baptism of the Holy Spirit,
and also need to seek God more fervently?