Online Reading Challenge – April Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How did your  “1800s” reading go in April? Exciting? Interesting? A non-starter?

I struggled a bit to find something to read this month. I think the “1800s”, while full of many excellent titles, was a bit to broad. There was almost too much choice. A more defined time period, while limiting choices, would make it easier to find a real gem. In fact, I had decided I would re-watch some favorite Jane Austen movies, but at the last minute I found a book that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. That book was The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman living in England in 1850, is jilted by her intended and decides, at the last minute, to join her sister who is immigrating to America to marry. The month-long Atlantic crossing is very difficult for Honor and further tragedy strikes during the journey to Ohio. Honor finds herself homesick, alone and struggling to find her place in a strange land.

America is very different from the England Honor grew up in; where England is settled and solid, America is raw and constantly changing. Survival is a constant struggle and comforts are meager. While people are kind, they are not particularly welcoming, absorbed in their own problems and struggles. And political tensions run high, often pitting neighbor against neighbor as the question of slavery begins to reach its boiling point – Honor has landed in a tiny settlement near Oberlin, Ohio, known as a safe stop for runaway slaves following the Underground Railroad.

Honor’s Quaker religion teaches her to despise slavery and she quickly begins helping the runaways that she encounters at her family’s farm. She soon learns that ideals can suffer in the harsh light of reality; her family forbids her from helping the runaways even though they agree with her views and new laws threaten hefty fines and imprisonment if defied. When a crisis is reached, Honor must decide between her beliefs and the law. Which path will she take and at what cost?

Much like Honor, this book is deceivably simple – a straightforward story line with a clearly drawn situation. But also like Honor, there is a lot of hidden depth here. How do you stand up for your beliefs against the majority? How do you battle loneliness and homesickness when you know you can never return home? How do you find purpose and meaning? There is a lot of  rich imagery, of the beauty and harshness of nature, of the quilts Honor expertly sews and the differences from their English counterparts. I enjoyed the view of a mid-1800s life on what was essentially the frontier, and a glimpse of the Quaker religion, practices and principals. Throughout the book, Honor hangs on to the Quaker belief that “there is Light in everyone” even when people are at their worst; a lesson that has never gone out of style.

OK, now it’s your turn – what did you read this month? Let us know in the comments!

 

Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale

Don’t judge this wonderful book by its covers, which are egregious. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is, by a wide margin, the most intelligent and engaging romance I’ve ever read. It proves what romance readers have known for generations: a love story with a happy ending can be just as powerful and thoughtful as any other literary novel. The heroine, Maddy Timms, is a devout Quaker: she speaks in a thee-thou manner that other characters remark upon as often you inevitably will. It’s infuriating, it’s different, it’s overly pious and hard to understand. It marks Maddy as a person who lives apart, in a smaller and humbler world than her Anglican peers. Her religion is restrictive and judgmental, but it’s also warm and forgiving and kind – just like Maddy herself. Christian Langland is a standard romantic hero (a strapping, handsome, fabulously wealthy Duke who happens to be a well-known rake), until a neurological illness strikes out of nowhere, shattering his ability to communicate. Only Maddy recognizes that he is not incompetent, an idiot, a savage struck down by God for his immoral ways: he is a sick man. And she is led by God to restore him to health.

There are layers upon layers in this book. Christian is mad; Maddy is a Christian. Flowers and storms pop up in significant junctures throughout the story, bolstering the plot as well as reminding you of the central theme: there is always a way to find something beautiful, something wonderful, even in the darkest and most harrowing times. The point of view alternates between Christian and Maddy, and Ms. Kinsale does an absolutely phenomenal job of illustrating Christian’s rapid mental decline and slow recovery both from inside and outside his fuddled mind. She very rarely writes the same moment from both characters’ perspectives, so you only know what Christian can piece together or what Maddy has been present to see. The scenes inside the lunatic asylum in the immediate aftermath of Christian’s illness are heartwrenching, as we watch him struggle to make even the simplest thought understood by his doctors. Maddy is the first and only person to truly understand him, to know that his intelligence is as fierce as ever but his ability to speak and to understand has been compromised. As their love blossoms, Maddy struggles with her religious convictions and Christian struggles with his illness, his family, and his legal obligations. I’ve never been moved to root for a romance novel couple as I was for these two.

If you’re a romance reader and you’ve never read Flowers from the Storm, do so right away! You won’t regret it. Then, pass it on to a skeptical friend who thinks romances are cheap, tawdry, worthless, or sub-literary: I’ve never read a book more likely to change their mind.