Books for the New Year
By some odd coincidence, among the books I received to review, I was given two historical books this month that cover almost the same portions of the 19th century. They both carry powerful messages concerning freedom and our nation’s roots, but their similarity ends there.
One, Am I Not a Man by Mark L. Shurtleff tells the Dred Scott story, and is the compelling story of a black man who struggled during the mid-19th century to gain his freedom and that of his wife and daughters. Scott’s experience and the suit he took to court was a compelling factor in rousing the nation’s indignation against slavery and propelling Abraham Lincoln into the White House. Author Shurtleff, Utah’s Attorney General, brings a long career in law to this work. Dawn’s Early Light by L.C. Lewis highlights a slightly earlier period when the British burned the American Capitol in 1812. It deals, too, with the struggle for freedom and the right to own property, the question of black equality, and the right of Americans to maintain their own sovereign nation.
When economics forced booksellers to tighten their belts, several loved series were severely shortened, delayed or dropped. This happened to the Free Men and Dreamers series. With two volumes published, the series was cancelled. Lewis persevered, engaged a top level editor, and proceeded to self-publish Dawn’s Early Light, the third volume in this series. This volume details a piece of American history that is both painful and often overlooked in a study of our past—the invasion of British troops on our nation’s capital and the burning of irreplaceable books and documents along with the President’s House and the Capitol Building.
Jed and Hannah are married now, but with war looming over them, they have little time together. With the threat of Napoleon removed as Britain’s main focus, British ships and troops are freed to subdue the upstart Americans. Britain’s House of Lords is divided over the war and without a leader of sense or sensitivity over the nation, there are limited checks and balances which lead to depravations, theft of property, and unclear policies.
The Creole Sebastian Dupree and his mercenaries attack the Willows and leave it and the White Oaks farms in shambles. Not everyone survives. And as the British move toward Washington, the capitol is paralyzed by weak leadership, unclear lines of authority, and personal egos. Farms are burned, stock and provisions stolen, and the land laid waste as the red coats proceed. The untrained Americans retreat too readily and men flee to see to their families’ safety instead of maintaining their military positions. Some slaves maintain their masters’ homes or fight alongside the militias, others flee to the British believing they will be granted freedom. Freed slaves are caught in a strange middle ground where neither side trusts them.
This volume is filled with both heroic and cowardly acts. Loved characters from the earlier volumes play strong roles again as the War of 1812 progresses.
Dawn’s Early Light is, in my opinion, the best written of the three volumes in the series. It is an important reminder of America’s roots and the human drive to achieve freedom. Both characters and the plot are believable and are based on meticulous research. It tore at my heart, as though events like Washington burning occurred just yesterday. Historical fans and those who read the first two books in this series will enjoy this volume. My only complaint is that it ended too soon. I wanted more closure without waiting for volume four.
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Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story is based on a true account unfamiliar to many today, but it is one of the greatest civil rights stories of all time. It is the story of a slave boy who grew to manhood as a trusted and loved part of a large, white land-owning family. The children of the family considered him a brother. When hard times and alcoholism changed the family’s circumstances, the slaves were sold, including Dred’s wife, whom he never saw again. He was sold to a hypochondriac doctor attached to the military who dragged him from post to post, including long stretches in free states. There in a free state, he married again and had his first child. Eventually the doctor died, leaving his property, including Dred and his family, to his well-connected wife, who in turn turned them over to her brother, an avid and abusive slavery supporter. The children of his first owner tried to buy Dred back, but his current owner refused to sell him. They got a court order preventing the sale of the family to anyone else and prohibiting further beatings and abuse, and thus began a long legal battle that went all the way to a corrupt and biased U.S. Supreme Court. The case outraged most Americans, became the focus of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and was a major factor in Lincoln becoming the nation’s choice for president.
LDS readers will notice similarities between the treatment by ruffian mobs of Mormons in Missouri and Illinois and the treatment and tactics of those same border ruffians who attempted to force slavery on Kansas and other new states.
Much of this book is brilliantly written and history buffs and freedom lovers won’t want to miss it. There are also sections that drag, and I found it distracting to have the story jump forward and backward from one time to another. The story would carry a greater impact if it were written in chronological order and omnipotent author intrusions were eliminated.
Most Americans today are completely repelled by the declaration of the Chief Justice that a black person was so inferior that he had “no rights a white man was bound to respect.” A culture that considered a black man a beast of burden, a mere animal, is hard for us to fathom today. Our present culture doesn’t permit the abuse of animals to the degree many slaves were treated at that time.
Parts of this novel, which closely follows the real case, are hard to read because of their painful nature. Though the book is absorbing and gives fascinating detail of one of the most important cases in our country’s legal history, it could be better organized and many of the long poems, songs, letters, and newspaper accounts would have been better placed in a bibliography or historical notes section rather than slowing the story. Which brings me to the book’s major defect; it lacks a bibliography which would allow the reader to follow up on particular events or rulings. This is one of those books that walks a narrow line between fiction and history with history carrying the greater weight. It would be helpful to be able to separate the fiction and factual parts of the book with greater accuracy. Though I found the book to be lacking several points necessary to a good novel, it was never dull and kept me glued to the pages. I found it a memorable, timely, and important look at historical events that helped to shape our country and our present day attitudes toward race. I highly recommend it.
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Where the Sun Rises by Frank Richardson is a story with a message. It might be described as a Good Samaritan story or some might call it a “feel good” kind of story. It begins with a graphic description of Hatcher Stephens III at his lowest point. Hatch was born into a wealthy family, and he had good looks, and intelligence to go with it. He married a beautiful woman and fathered two children. Unfortunately life came too easily and he never learned to discipline himself, think of others or develop a strong work ethic. When he meets obstacles, his life falls apart and he slips into alcoholism.
Broke, in debt, divorced, and homeless, he falls into a drunken stupor where a strange phenomena of light leaves him obsessed with a desire to reach the place where the sun rises. He begins a journey eastward where he is rescued by Trevor, a security guard who is strongly committed to the concept that when one person rescues another, he is responsible for that person. From Trevor, Hatcher learns some hard lessons and finds employment with a woman he greatly admires. Eventually he pushes on, meeting other people who further his education in facing reality and who help him become a stronger person. As he remains sober, he dreams of returning to his family in Seattle.
This book is beautifully written with thoughts and feelings expressed in an identifiable way. There are a few typos and omitted words, but not enough to distract from the story. The main character is well-developed and the first few secondary characters are developed well enough to fill their role, but the characters introduced toward the end of the book are shadowy. Mollie, who is an important part of the Snowville section—a lead in to the conclusion—is too vague for the reader to sympathize with or understand why she has such a strong impact on the Snowville community or Hatch.
I think most readers will enjoy Where the Sun Rises and it will lead to some serious introspection, but its dependence on coincidences (or miracles) lessens its impact.
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Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen’s Missing is the story of a missing child and is as current as today’s headlines.
While singing a solo at a choir performance in Canada, Stacie Cox catches a fleeting glimpse of a young girl she feels certain is a kidnapped child from Rexburg, Idaho. She notifies the police but isn’t content to leave the matter in their hands. She begins a search on her own, assisted by several members of the choir, thus upsetting the schedule of the college choir tour. Running concurrently with her search for the little girl are her relationships with two young men from the choir who have strong feelings for her.
As her search for the child becomes an obsession, Stacie is haunted by memories of a child she couldn’t save. The direction her search takes leads the police and the choir director to question her emotional stability, and a clever woman sets a trap for the hunter.
Though this is her first book, Hinrichsen weaves an intriguing tale that holds the reader’s interest from start to finish. Stacie has a few too many problems and the plot involves too many coincidences to be completely believable, yet the fast pace and style of presentation make the book difficult to put down once the reader is past the disjointed beginning. Even the copy editing improves drastically once past the first chapter.
Missing is at its strongest when the author deals with the missing child and the physical details of the plot. Her weakest points are Stacie’s emotional hang-ups which don’t feel real, then are too easily dismissed.
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By Love or By Sea by Rachel Rager is like reading a highly romanticized book written half a century or more ago. It begins slowly and doesn’t pick up momentum until almost the end. The heroine and her suitors seem immature and the seaside kingdom where they live is vague.
Alice, the heroine lives with her grandparents. One day as she walks down the street, she meets a sailor who reminds her of a boy she fell in love with when she was just six and who disappeared three years later. Of course, he turns out to be that boy and is now in love with her. A wealthy man who has been courting her threatens to reveal dark secrets concerning the young man’s past and she is torn between her two suitors. She befriends a reclusive artist, indulges in several intense kissing sessions with the sailor, then he leaves. Almost a year passes before he returns again. Then the story picks up its pace, leading to a love-and-money happy ending. Those who enjoy dreamy, romantic fantasies will enjoy this one.
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DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT, VOL 3 of FREE MEN AND DREAMERS by L.C. Lewis, self-published (Amazon), softcover, 325 pages, $18.99
AM I NOT A MAN? The Dred Scott Story, by Mark L. Shurtleff, published by Valor Publishing Group, hardcover, 480 pages, $24.95
WHERE THE SUN RISES by Frank Richardson, published by Bonneville Books, softcover, 217 pages, $14.99
MISSING by Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen, published by Walnut Springs Press, soft cover, 264 pages, $16.95
BY LOVE OR BY SEA by Rachel Rager, published by Bonneville Books, soft cover, 198 pages, $14.99