Ruth Axtell. Her Good Name: A Novel. Chicago: Moody Publishers (River North Fiction), 2012.
I would like to thank Moody Publishers for my review copy of this book. See here for Moody’s page about it.
Her Good Name is a novel that is set in late nineteenth century Maine. A key theme in the book is the romantic feelings between Espy, who is from a lower-economic class, and Warren Brentwood, who is from the town’s upper economic class and is being groomed by his father to take over the family lumber company. Espy and Warren are from two different worlds, and they suppress their feelings for each other. But they work together at a recently-formed church group that is designed to help the poor of the community. Espy brings her sister Angela and a couple of her friends to the group, and Warren brings his shy sister Annalise and some of his rich friends. Elements of the two factions clash, and yet the two factions need each other for the group to be effective. While the rich members are instrumental in raising funds from their rich acquaintances, the poorer members can deliver those funds to the poor without sounding patronizing or condescending.
Espy takes a housekeeping job at the home of a local professor, the respected Mr. Stockton. She appreciates that Mr. Stockton allows her to borrow books from his extensive library, and that he gives her fascinating insights about the books that she reads. Not only does that open her eyes to a world of learning, but she also hopes that the job will allow her to be closer to Warren, and that the professor’s tutorial of her will help her to become good enough for Warren. When Mr. Stockton makes an unwanted pass at Espy, however, and Mrs. Stockton catches him kissing her, Mrs. Stockton spreads the rumor that Espy was making advances at the professor. Espy leaves town in humiliation and goes to another town, where she finds refuge at an accepting Christian mission house. There, the pastor and his wife listen sympathetically to her story, provide her with the tools to get a job, and help her to grow as a Christian.
Meanwhile, Warren has a dream and is feeling a call to the ministry, which goes against his father’s plan for his life. Warren goes to seminary, but he struggles to find a vibrant relationship with God there. Will Warren pursue the ministry, or will he take over his father’s business and marry Christina, a local rich girl whom her parents want him to marry? What’s more, what will become of his relationship with Espy? How will he react to her scandal? Will they be together?
It is a beautiful story, and I cried during parts of it. One part that I found particularly moving was when Espy presented a resounding defense of the poor of the community, after some of the rich people of the church group had implied that the poor were shiftless. Espy said that the poor work hard and struggle to get by. And, when the minister and his wife at the local mission house were sharing the love of Christ with Espy, I thanked God for the church.
If there was one character whom I loved the most, it was Warren’s sister, Annalise. I could identify with Annalise’s shyness, but I also admired that she was an accepting person, even though she was in the upper-class, and a number of her rich relatives and acquaintances looked down their noses on Espy and Espy’s social circle. If there was a character who intrigued me, it was Warren’s father, who owned a prominent lumber company. Warren’s father was quite judgmental, and yet there was a side of him that could commiserate with people’s humanity, even if they were in a lower economic class. This side manifested itself very rarely, yet it was there.
I decided to read the book because I was hoping that it could provide me with insights on forgiveness. It did not do that as much as I hoped: Espy essentially asks Jesus to come into her heart, her heart is strangely warmed, and her joy then rests in Christ rather than how other people treat her; at the same time, she still feels badly when she returns to her home town and continues to experience rejection. For a second, I thought that Espy’s religious experience was making her into a flat character, but her feelings after her return home convinced me that she was still human.
A question that I had as I read the book concerned the religious views of the author, Ruth Axtell. The book strikes me as rather charismatic, especially near the end, as the minister at the mission house stresses the Book of Acts and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That made me wonder what Ruth Axtell’s view was of the religiosity that was in the book before Espy came to the mission house: the church group, the pastor in Espy’s town who is kind and devout yet initially does not rush to Espy’s defense, etc. Is Ruth Axtell’s point that the church group and the pastor of Espy’s town need the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and also need to seek God more fervently?