Lynn Austin. Candle in the Darkness. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002.
I have been reading Lynn Austin’s historical fiction about the Hebrew Bible, and I decided to give her Civil War books a try. Candle in the Darkness is the first book of her Refiner’s Fire series, and it received a Christy Award, which is awarded to Christian fiction writers. Let me say that Candle in the Darkness certainly deserved an award! I have enjoyed all of the books that I have read thus far by Lynn Austin, but Candle in the Darkness surpassed all of those—-in its depth, in its meatiness, and in its ability to move me as a reader. Something that I noticed when I first opened Candle in the Darkness was that a lot of words were crammed on each page, whereas that is not the case with the other Lynn Austin novels that I have read. Well, lots of words being on the page definitely makes a book a slow read, at least for me, but I do notice that it often means a quality read!
Candle in the Darkness is about Caroline Fletcher, who lives in the South and whose family owns slaves. Caroline is very shy and socially-awkward, but she enjoys the company of her family’s slaves. One slave in particular, Eli, a devout Christian, is a comforting presence to her as she attends a school for girls and is nervous about making friends and being around the other students.
Caroline does not care for slavery as an institution. She notices the slaves’ wretched conditions, and she observes the pain that her servant, Tessie, feels when Tessie’s son (also Caroline’s friend) Grady is sold to another plantation. Caroline also senses that there were strange circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of Tessie’s son Grady, but Eli refuses to tell her about that. Caroline hears sermons that say that the Bible supports slavery, but she notices that Colossians 4:1 instructs masters to give their slaves what is just and equal, and she does not believe that the institution of slavery that she observes in the South actually does that.
Caroline spends time with her cousin Jonathan, on whom she has a crush, and with whom she debates slavery. Her father later sends her to the North, in Philadelphia, to stay with her aunt, uncle, and cousins. At church, Caroline hears a young Yale-educated minister, Nathaniel Greene, who boldly preaches abolitionism from the pulpit. Caroline’s cousin, Julia, is infatuated with Nathaniel, and they all three attend abolitionist meetings together. Caroline’s opposition to slavery becomes reinforced, and she also puts the pieces together and concludes that her father was the father of Grady, her slave Tessie’s child. Although Caroline agrees with abolitionism, she notices flaws even in her Northern surroundings. She confronts Nathaniel by asking him how many black people he actually knows, and she tells him that, even though slavery in the South is horrible, there are at least mutual relationships between blacks and whites in the South, relationships that contain some level of concern for each other. Nathaniel is challenged by Caroline’s words and preaches about that topic on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Caroline attends social functions with her cousins and learns how to be social notwithstanding her shyness, and she hangs around her cousin Robert, a plump guy who is obsessed with talking about war. Robert has a crush on her, but she does not feel the same way about him; still, she feels safe around him. Caroline returns to the South when her father comes to pick her up, after her father gets into a little debate with his northern relatives about slavery.
Back in the South, Caroline decides to spread the gospel of abolitionism. In town, as she carries her pamphlets, she notices a man grabbing a little African-American boy, and she smacks the man with her purse. The man tells her that the boy stole an apple, and, when he notices her abolitionist pamphlets, he informs her that spreading abolitionist propaganda is a felony. The two part their ways, but she encounters that man again at a social function that her cousin, Jonathan, encouraged her to attend with him so he could make a woman named Sallie jealous. Caroline and this man argue about slavery, and she tells him that, if he was so compassionate, he should have bought that African-American boy the apple! That night, Caroline cannot get this man out of her head, and she thinks of things she should have said to him in their argument.
She later learns that this man is named Charles and is the brother of Sallie, whom Jonathan loves, and who is from a well-to-do family. Caroline and Charles get to know each other and fall in love. They argue about slavery, but they come to see each other’s point-of-view. Charles acknowledges that slavery is unjust, while Caroline concludes that it would be unwise to abolish slavery right off the bat, since the Southern economy depends on it, and there is the question of what might happen to the freed slaves—-where they would go, how they would support themselves, etc.
The Civil War begins, and Charles and Jonathan go off to war. Caroline stays and joins a women’s group that makes uniforms for the Confederate soldiers, and one of the ladies there refers to traitors and Northern sympathizers and asks Caroline about her view on slavery, since Caroline spent time in the North. Caroline does not express her convictions, and she feels bad about that afterwards. Eli tells her, however, that, like Esther in the Bible, she will be in a position to act on her convictions when the time is right.
Caroline learns that her cousin Robert from the North is a Union soldier and is a POW in a nearby facility. She visits him, and Robert persuades her to help free him and to pass on information to the Union. Caroline is reluctant, but Robert tells her that this can end slavery and the war sooner. Caroline gathers information from her social circles and passes it on to a Union contact, who is selling fish in the market. She tries to avoid giving the Union any information that can result in the death of her husband Charles. Caroline wonders if she is doing the right thing, and, in a touching scene, Eli tells her that her work on behalf of the slaves has had an impact on Eli’s son, Josiah. Josiah hates white people and dismisses Christianity as a white-person’s religion, notwithstanding Eli’s lectures to him, but Josiah is impressed that Caroline has put her neck on the line for him and other slaves.
I could go on about the plot, but I don’t want to give away the story’s ending. There is a powerful scene at the end, though, where Josiah is lecturing Charles that perhaps God caused the Civil War to show some of the rich Southern white people what slavery was actually like—-how abject it was (and the book effectively describes the abject conditions that soldiers experienced). And Charles felt some obligation to listen to Josiah because Josiah saved his life in the war.
The book did not have too many Scriptural debates about slavery, and that disappointed me because the Scriptural debates are what I love about the other Lynn Austin books! Still, Candle in the Darkness was inspiring, and Eli’s wisdom as a Christian added a valuable spiritual component to the book.
A theme that was in this book, and that is in other Lynn Austin books that I have read, concerns human attempts to manipulate God. After Caroline tries to make a deal with God, Eli tells her that God does not make deals, and that God does not subject his good will to the whims of human beings. Eli encourages her to trust in God’s plan and will. Still, the book acknowledges that people can share their dreams and hopes with God. In one profound scene, Caroline is having Christmas dinner with the slaves, and each person takes a turn sharing his or her dream, so that they can know what to pray for each other about: Eli wants to be a pastor, another slave wants to work in shipping with his master, see the world, and get married, etc. Eli then prays that their dreams might be God’s will.
In terms of the historical component of the book, I had to respect the tenacity of the Confederates in battle, as bad as their cause was. The Confederates were outnumbered and did not have the resources that the North had, yet they still won battle after battle. As much as I respected them for this, I had to agree with Caroline that their cause was still wrong, as much as they tried to sugarcoat it with language about states’ rights.
I appreciated the romance between Caroline and Charles, probably because I did not expect it. I was expecting for Caroline to become romantically involved with Jonathan, whereas Charles would be a temporary character, but I was pleased that this did not happen. Caroline and Charles loved each other, even if (maybe even because) they had passionate disagreements.
If I have a criticism, it is that Caroline did not seem to have any concern over whether her espionage could endanger people’s lives. Suppose that her espionage helps the Union invade Richmond: would that not endanger those she knew and loved? The book acknowledges that the Union committed atrocities in the South, but Caroline did not seem to me to reflect much on how her actions could have contributed to that. Interestingly, the book did depict Caroline as someone who did not always think about people outside of her own social circle: when Eli is using information that Caroline gave him to help slaves from other plantations to escape, Caroline is upset, until she realizes that these other slaves have many of the same struggles and concerns as the slaves she knows.
I plan to read the next book in the series. It is entitled Fire by Night, and it focuses on Julia and Nathaniel Greene, whom Caroline met when she was in Philadelphia. It, too, won a Christy Award, so it will most likely be good!