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
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
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
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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