A story that captures my attention from the first page, is entertaining and suspenseful, and I learn something new from it, is my kind of book. Escape to Zion by Jean Holbrook Matthews accomplished all three.
A young woman running from a cruel slave master and who has been brutally raped certainly caught my attention. This probably occurred more often than most of us care to admit during those dark days when black people were imported to America or European colonies as slaves. Most Americans, like me, suppose the abominable slave trade was limited to black persons, but Mathews points out that between 1650 and 1850 one in every four immigrants to America arrived as an indentured servant. Supposedly these servants were to become free at the end of the period for which they contracted. Unfortunately large numbers of these immigrants were sold by their original masters as slaves, many were children who knew nothing of contracts and had no memory of their life in Europe, and the same people who grew rich from the labors of black slaves exploited these white slaves who were mostly from Ireland, Germany, and England. Dealers in human flesh had no trouble convincing their clients the white slaves were Negros since anyone who had a black ancestor somewhere in the previous six generations was considered black even if his/her skin was white, eyes blue, and hair blond.
Maria Schumann is this kind of indentured servant who was treated well by the people who first buy her contract, but when they fall on hard times they sell her contract to someone else who turns out to be a slave trader, who in turn sells her to a cruel plantation owner who sees her as the means of both satisfying his lustful obsession for her and obtaining the children his wife is unable to bear. Determined to escape, she flees the plantation and is pursued by hounds until she throws herself into a fast moving river. She is rescued by a young man, Hank, who also arrived in America as an indentured servant, but whose master honorably released him when he’d served his time.
After a perilous chase Hank and Maria make a new start in Mississippi. There they join a small band of Latter-day Saints, but their troubles continue when they discover Maria is going to bear the plantation owner’s child and that he is expending every resource to find her and force her to return to him. Their struggle to gain Maria’s freedom and escape the man pursuing them lead them across the country to the Rocky Mountains and through years of hardship and agony. As their love for each other grows, so does their faith in the religion they’ve found. They suffer almost unbearable loss and pain.
The ending is unexpected, both heart-breaking and poignantly right. It will touch the reader’s heart and leave an indelible mark. And best of all it is a more up-lifting than depressing end.
This book is peopled with more good people than bad, but the bad ones are truly depraved. The characterizations are handled well and though there’s a large cast of characters, I never experienced any confusion over who is who. I liked the main characters and was touched by a minor black character who, knowing there was little likelihood of her ever being free, nonetheless, aided Maria in her quest for freedom. The book is remarkably well-researched and the plot is compelling, the setting realistic.
Jean Holbrook Mathews is a native of Utah, but spent thirty years in St. Louis with her husband. She has a Masters degree from UM-Columbia and served for ten years in the Missouri State House of Representatives. Her first published novel was The Light Above, a touching story of child labor in the mines of Scotland and Wales in the early to mid 1800s and of a mine family’s desperate attempt to escape that life. This is Mathews’s second historical novel that combines her love for history with her exploration of the hardships in the lives of the pioneers who shaped Church history.
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ESCAPE TO ZION by Jean Holbrook Mathews, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 292 pages, $16.99