Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Write-Up: Until the Dawn, by Elizabeth Camden

Elizabeth Camden.  Until the Dawn.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Until the Dawn is set in the late nineteenth century.  The mansion of Dierenpark is a tourist attraction in the Hudson River Valley.  Dierenpark is owned and was long inhabited by the Vandermarks.

Locals have long heard stories about the Vandermarks and Dierenpark.  They know the story about how two brothers, Caleb and Adrien Vandermark, came from Holland and established a prosperous shipping business.  Adrien was fair in his dealings with the Native Americans (unlike many white people who dealt with them) but was supposedly killed by them.  Caleb’s descendant Karl was a pillar of the community who was admired for working with the locals at the mill, in spite of his wealth and status.  Karl committed suicide.  Or was it a suicide?  Many, including the elderly Nickolaas Vandermaark (who is Karl’s son), believe that Dierenpark is cursed and want it destroyed.  Nickolaas also believes that there are unusual natural (or supernatural) properties at Dierenpark: lilies grow where they are not supposed to grow, and crocuses bloom more often than they are supposed to bloom.

One of the locals of the community, the twenty-something and attractive Sophie van Rijn, has long loved Dierenpark, and she set up a weather station on its roof as part of her volunteer work for the Weather Bureau.  That work gives her meaning in life because it is useful and helps others.  Conflict emerges, however, when the first Vandermark to set foot on Dierenpark in sixty years shows up.  Quentin Vandermark is Nickolaas’ grandson.  Quentin is an architect because he does not want to be one of the “idle rich.”  He is melancholic and walks with a cane because he broke his leg years before and could not reset it properly.  He is a widower and is accompanied by his young son, Pieter.

Quentin is initially outraged that Sophie set up a weather site on his roof without permission, but he lets her continue her work because he is committed to science.  Quentin is an atheist.  Part of the reason for his atheism is that he prefers to stick with what he can see and understand rationally, and part of the reason is that he was burned out with religion because his grandfather Nickolaas continually dragged him on journeys to sample various religions and spiritualities.  Sophie, in contrast with Quentin, is a devout Christian.  Quentin admires Sophie’s winsomeness, but he thinks that she is naive about the ways of the world.

There were many passages in this book that I liked.  My favorite plot-element is when Sophie is trying to get the Weather Bureau to set up an actual station in her community, and she hopes to work there for money.  While many mock her dream, Quentin actually takes her seriously and challenges her to write a scientific and well-researched proposal about why the station should be set up in that town.  After Sophie overhears a Weather Bureau representative diminish her knowledge and abilities to Quentin, Quentin tries to encourage her by telling her about some of the rejection that he has experienced as an architect.  He also tells her about how she has made a difference.

In terms of the prose and story, Until the Dawn is not as simple or shallow as a number of other Christian fiction books.  Characters are not always as they seem.  The ending was happy, but not all of the characters get what they want, at least not entirely.  The book has lots of stories: about the mysterious Vandermark history, and Quentin’s previous marriage.  Nickolaas at the end of the book responds to Christianity in an endearing (and not necessarily evangelical) way.  Just when the reader thinks that an element of the plot has been resolved, something unexpected comes out of the woodwork.  The characters are dealing with disappointments, hurts, and flaws, and that makes for a good story.  The book could have been more complex, and it did have typical elements of Christian fiction: a Christian saves someone, who feels aimless and depressed because of the lack of God in his or her life.  Still, this book was an enjoyable read because of the wise things that Sophie and Quentin said, the interaction with various worldviews, the characters, and the mystery.

I felt comfortable reading this book, and I would like to read more of Elizabeth Camden’s novels.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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