Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Write-Up: A Light to My Path, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  A Light to My Path.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004.

A Light to My Path is the third book of Lynn Austin’s Refiner’s Fire series about the American Civil War.  The first book, Candle in the Darkness, focused on Caroline Fletcher, who was from the South (see my review here).  The second book, Fire by Night, was from a Northern, or at least a Union, perspective (see my review here).  Julia Hoffman in Fire by Night was from Philadelphia, and Phoebe Bigelow was from what became West Virginia, which was part of the Union.  The third book, A Light to My Path, focuses more of the perspective of the slaves.

Here are some items:

1.  A Light to My Path intersects with the other two books in the series.  One of its main characters is Grady, a slave, and we met him when he was a child in Candle in the Darkness.  Grady was the son of a slave, Tessie, and the white master of the plantation, George Fletcher.  As a child, Grady learned about Jesus from the slave Eli, who is a prominent character in Candle in the Darkness, and who appears again in A Light to My Path.  Grady was ripped from his mother as a child and sold, primarily because George’s ailing wife saw Grady as a reminder of her husband’s relationship with Tessie (if “relationship” is even the right word, for there is not exactly mutual consent within the context of slavery).  A Light to My Path chronicles what took place next in Grady’s life.

Another character in A Light to My Path is Delia, a slave, who tells fellow slaves what Africa was like and has a strong Christian faith.  Delia becomes a sort of mother figure to Grady, after she invites Grady to cry and to pour out his emotions after his long experience of pain.  In Fire by Night, there is a Union soldier named Ted, who is a friend of Phoebe Bigelow.  Ted passes as white, but he has some African-American blood in him.  The reason is that his grandmother was a slave and was raped by her white master.  The grandmother sent her daughter up North with some Quakers in hopes that she would have a better life.  After Ted dies in Fire by Night, Phoebe resolves to try to find Ted’s grandmother.  In A Light to My Path, it seems that Ted’s grandmother is Delia.  Did Phoebe ever find her?  I won’t say.  I don’t want to give away too many spoilers!  Whether I ended up happy or disappointed, wanting to know if Phoebe would find Delia was one factor that encouraged me to keep on reading!

2.  A character in A Light to My Path is Missy Claire, a daughter of a plantation owner.  She owns a personal servant, Anna, whom Miss Claire names “Kitty” because Anna acted like a cat to entertain Missy Claire when both were children.  Missy Claire is a spoiled brat throughout the book, from childhood through adulthood.  As a child, she sends Kitty to work in the fields because Kitty is depressed one day, and Missy Claire doesn’t want to be around someone who mopes.  Kitty has to degrade herself by pretending to be a cat to become Missy Claire’s personal slave again, a life that is easier than work in the fields.  Missy Claire does not hesitate to split up slave families.  She complains when she is pregnant, but she does not hesitate to make Kitty work long and hard when Kitty is pregnant.  She continually berates Kitty.  When Kitty attacks Missy Claire after Missy Claire threatens to put Kitty’s newborn son on slave row, or to throw him into the river, I cheered Kitty on!

I hated Missy Claire.  At the same time, I had to remember that she was raised to have some of the attitudes that she did.  Her Mom told her that the slaves were their property, and that black slaves did not value family the way white people did.  When Missy Claire is reluctant to ask the butler to sleep with Kitty so that Kitty can have a child and nurse Missy Claire’s baby, Missy Claire’s mother tells her that she does not ask a slave to do something—-she tells him.  Missy Claire’s mother did seem to be stomping out whatever humanity Missy Claire had, in terms of her treatment of slaves.  In addition, I was asking myself to what extent I am like Missy Claire: thinking that the whole world revolves around me, thinking other people exist to make me comfortable, making a big deal about my own discomfort while ignoring the discomfort of others, etc.  I am not as bad as Missy Claire, but I do find that, on some level, I have to deal with my own inner Missy Claire!

3.  A significant theme in A Light to My Path is forgiveness.  There was wisdom in this book about forgiveness—-such as the folk saying that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, and the insight that resentment can crowd love out of a person’s heart—-and I had to respect and admire Grady for the times that he chose to be the bigger person, to forgive rather than taking vengeance.  But there was also a message in the book that disturbed me greatly.  A few times in the book, I read that God will not hear a person’s prayers if that person does not forgive others.  Kitty and Grady got married, and Grady was fighting with the Union, and a nun told Kitty that God will not hear Kitty’s prayers for God to protect Grady if Kitty does not forgive those who hurt her.  That is troubling theology: can someone I love get hurt just because I have problems forgiving others?  What kind of God is that?

The thing is, there was some acknowledgement within the book that forgiveness is a process, not something that necessarily comes in one setting.  There were several elements in Grady’s spiritual life that shaped him, as Grady went from bitterness and hatred of white people to a place of spiritual wholeness—-his appreciation of the spirituals and Jesus’ defiance of injustice, his observation that even white people were appalled by slavery, his admiration of a fellow African-American soldier who kept his cool when he encountered his former master, his realization that he himself needed forgiveness, and his recognition that a forgiving attitude would not come overnight but that he needed to honestly confess to God that he struggled with bitterness.  Even near the end of the book, Grady has lingering resentment, but he makes a decision to forgive.

There is also the factor of God’s love.  A fellow Union soldier in an African-American regiment, Joseph, is a Christian and is continually preaching to Grady, to Grady’s dismay.  Joseph tells Grady that God always loved him, even when Grady hated God, and that God saw Grady’s pain and heard his cries.  But Grady was not in a forgiving attitude throughout that time that God loved him.  Yet, God loved him and heard his cries.  How can this be reconciled with the view that God will not hear our prayers—-actually, Delia said to Kitty that Jesus cannot hear our prayers—-if we do not forgive others?

4.  A Light to My Path is a fantastic book, but there were a few parts that somewhat confused me.  Kitty’s parents belonged to Missy Claire’s mother and father.  You would think that, therefore, Kitty belonged to them, too, but there is a scene in which Missy Claire first meets Kitty in town and wants to take Kitty home with her, so Missy Claire’s mother inquires if Kitty already belongs to someone.  Why wasn’t Kitty already at Missy Claire’s home?  And it is quite a coincidence that Kitty ends up at the very plantation where her parents were slaves.

Another confusing plot-line was when Grady was going to do a sham wedding with Kitty so that Kitty would not have to sleep with the butler.  Grady and Kitty would hold off on consummating their relationship so that Kitty would not have a child, and this would upset Missy Claire, who wanted Kitty to have a child so Kitty could then nurse Missy Claire’s baby.  I wondered what the point of this plot was, exactly.  Grady wanted to show Missy Claire that Kitty had a right to do as she wished with her own body?  Why invite Missy Claire’s retaliation?  And why couldn’t Grady authentically marry Kitty because he loved her?  He did have romantic feelings for her, at that point.

5.  On page 402, Anna (Kitty’s real name) encounters an African-American Union soldier.  He wears big glasses and talks like a white man.  He and his parents were free, and he only knew about slavery by reading about it.  He served under Colonel Robert Shaw in the Massachusetts fifty-fourth, and he tells Anna that Colonel Shaw died.  Does any of this sound familiar?  He sounds like Thomas in the movie Glory, which is about the fifty-fourth under the command of Colonel Shaw.  Lynn Austin never gives a name to this soldier, though.

This scene in the book inspired within me a number of questions.  Can authors use characters from movies in their works?  Did Lynn Austin even do that?  She says that she has read Civil War correspondence.  Maybe Thomas in Glory was based on a real-life character, and perhaps Lynn Austin encountered a similar personage in her research.  Maybe the character in her book was not even Thomas: Thomas grew up with Colonel Shaw, and the soldier in A Light to My Path gave no indication that this was the case when he mentioned Colonel Shaw to Kitty; the soldier also did not quote any transcendentalists, whom Thomas liked to read in Glory.  Moreover, Thomas may have died in Glory with Colonel Shaw (though there are people online who question this), whereas the soldier in Lynn Austin’s book lived on after Colonel Shaw’s death.  Maybe any similarity between this soldier and Thomas is coincidental, and Lynn Austin was not thinking of Thomas when she included a free-born African-American soldier with glasses who talked like a white man and could read.  Such people probably existed in Civil War times.

All of that said, I enjoyed A Light to My Path.  It did not win a Christy Award, whereas the other two books in the series did.  I would say that I enjoyed A Light to My Path more than Lynn Austin’s biblical series, but not as much as the two Refiner’s Fire books that won Christy Awards.

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