Lynn Austin. Fire by Night. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003.
Fire by Night is the second book of Lynn Austin’s Refiner’s Fire series, which is about the American Civil War. The first book, Candle in the Darkness (see my review here), focused on the South, whereas Fire by Night focuses on the North.
In Candle in the Darkness, Caroline Fletcher, the protagonist from Virginia, spends some time in Philadelphia with her aunt, uncle, and cousins, the Hoffmans. One of her cousins, Julia Hoffman, is infatuated with the new young abolitionist preacher, Nathaniel Greene, and she attends abolitionist meetings with him and Caroline so she can get closer to him. Julia is from an upper-class home, and she is a social butterfly, who enjoys flirting and looking pretty, and she has had lots of suitors. Now, she just loves Nathaniel.
Fire by Night starts with Julia, Nathaniel, and Congressman Rhodes near the Battle of Bull Run. Soldiers are getting killed and injured around their carriage, and Julia is frightened and just wants to get home. Nathaniel, appalled by her callousness, tells her that these men need their help. After they arrive at a place of safety, Julia overhears Nathaniel and Congressman Rhodes talking about her. Congressman Rhodes observes that Julia is sweet on Nathaniel, and he says that she is from a fine family and would be a good wife for the preacher. Nathaniel, however, responds that Julia is not the sort of woman he is looking for. Nathaniel considers her spoiled and shallow, and Nathaniel wants a woman who will serve the Lord with him.
Well, Nathaniel’s remarks are crushing to Julia, and she resolves to prove him wrong. Plus, she sees his point: her upper-class life does look rather superficial, shallow, and pointless to her, and she wants for her life to mean something. She eventually decides to become a nurse for wounded Union soldiers, but she faces some barriers to her goal. She is considered too pretty to be a nurse and she is unmarried, and plain or married applicants are preferred so that there is no hint of impropriety between the nurses and the patients.
Julia ends up working at a hospital for Dr. James McGrath (NOT the biblioblogger!). Dr. McGrath is extremely cranky and rude to the nurses, and he always seems to have a hangover. The other nurses tell Julia that Dr. McGrath receives regular letters from his wife in Connecticut. There is also a rumor that Dr. McGrath killed someone. Dr. McGrath’s churlishness notwithstanding, he is considered even by his critics to be an excellent doctor, one who is kind and caring towards his patients, and who has a high rate of patients who survive under his care. Dr. McGrath does not appear to like Julia that much, and he wonders why she is even there, for why would a high-class woman actually want to do nursing work? He goes out of his way to show her that she doesn’t have what it takes: he has her wash tons of soiled sheets, and he has her smell gangrene on her first day. Julia faces challenges as she adjusts to work and to being away from home, but she perseveres. And she manages to help people along the way, as when she gets work and a place to stay for two African-American women who are raising families in a shantytown.
The book also follows the story of Phoebe Bigelow. Phoebe is from a northern county in Virginia, and she has a reputation as the ugliest woman in the county. Nobody wants to marry her. She is homely, tall, and a bit of a tomboy. When her brothers go off to war, she is to stay behind and work for a local shopkeeper, taking care of the shop and the shopkeeper’s many children. Phoebe does not want to do this, for the shopkeeper is extremely cranky, plus Phoebe has to sleep in the attic, where there are bats. She runs away, dresses up like a man, and enlists in the Union army. There, she meets a small cheerful guy named Ted, and she gains respect as a fighter, a cook, and a sharpshooter.
Well, a lot of things happen, and I do not want to give away too many spoilers, especially about the mysterious Dr. McGrath. Julia does manage to win Nathaniel’s respect, but by that point she is not just doing nursing work to impress him: she feels it is God’s call on her life. Nathaniel proposes to Julia and wants her to quit nursing, but Julia does not want to quit. Phoebe is wounded and is discovered to be a woman, and she becomes friends with Julia, as well as a nursing assistant for Dr. McGrath (after Phoebe discovers Dr. McGrath is providing free care in secret to African-Americans in the shanty town). Phoebe also catches the eye of a tall, gangly, socially-awkward yet friendly Confederate doctor, who was captured by the Union.
Candle in the Darkness won a Christy Award, and so did this book, Fire by Night. And it is a quality book. I have read other books by Lynn Austin—-her Restoration Chronicles and her Chronicles of the Kings series—-and, while I enjoy all of those books, there is something about those two that won Christy Awards that sets them apart, that makes them, not just good, but extraordinary. I cannot identify what exactly it is, but I do notice that there is a lot of attention to detail in Candle in the Darkness and Fire by Night, and also characters who seem more real: who are a mixture of good and bad. Moreover, I could feel for the characters in many of the scenes: I think of Julia when she got up before 5 a.m. to leave for work, came home late after a long day, missed dinner, and went to bed hungry. As a reader, I was a part of the details of these characters’ lives.
A theme that I really liked in Fire by Night was how characters who appear extremely flawed actually have goodness in them. This was the case with Dr. McGrath, and also for Julia’s mother. Julia’s mother came across to Julia as a superficial socialite, and yet Julia’s mother was a source of strength for her husband after the capture of Robert, their nephew, by the Confederacy.
There was also a salient feminist aspect in Fire by Night. In a powerful scene, Dr. McGrath chastised Nathaniel for not respecting Julia and her capabilities, and he listed off to Nathaniel women who have found new opportunities to use their talents as a result of the war. In the course of that discussion, there was a reference to Ephesians 5:22-23. Nathaniel maintained that Julia was supposed to obey him after they marry, but Dr. McGrath notes that the passage also says that husbands were to be like Christ for their wives: as Christ sacrificed himself for the church, so husbands are to sacrifice themselves for their wives. Dr. McGrath says that Nathaniel has required Julia to make all of the sacrifices, whereas Nathaniel makes none himself. Lynn Austin conveys a feminist message, while also seeking to highlight Ephesians 5:22-23 (a passage controversial for many feminists) as authoritative.
Nathaniel did shine in one scene, though. Nathaniel was part of a church service for Union soldiers, and he approached Phoebe, who was still pretending to be a man. Phoebe told Nathaniel that she did not go to church because people at church did not want her there, and she also said that she enjoyed spending time with God in nature. Nathaniel responded that Jesus loved and reached out to those whom society excluded. Nathaniel was open and friendly in that interaction.
Overall, the religious element of the book was all right. A nun, Sister Irene, offered wisdom to Julia about looking to God for strength and serving God wherever one may be—-as a nurse on the battlefield or at an upper-class tea social. There were also themes such as human sinfulness and how atonement was free, not something that people earned by good works. I thought that Phoebe’s speech to Dr. McGrath about Jesus dying to protect her from God—-depicting God as shooting a gun at her for her sins and for being God’s enemy, and Jesus covering her with his body to protect her—-was a little odd. I can understand that there are parts of the New Testament about being saved from the wrath of God, but I had issues with the imagery in Phoebe’s speech. Elsewhere in the book, there was an acknowledgement that God the Father himself loved humanity in sending his Son: Ted’s grandmother was a slave, and she sent away her daughter so that the daughter and her kids could have a better life, and Phoebe learned about God the Father’s own sacrifice from that. I had some issues with how many of the characters saw themselves as gross sinners, for they seemed to me to be simply human, with strengths, weaknesses, and areas in which they needed to grow.
The discussions about the battles were also pretty good. Ted was a big fan of General McClellan, going on about how General McClellan knows best and was trained in Europe. But even Ted became disillusioned with General McClellan because the general seemed to be holding the army back from doing what it takes to win. Phoebe’s questioning of how the war was being fought came to my mind recently, when we were watching the movie Glory. My Mom’s husband wondered why people were going into battle the way that they were, since it did not make much sense to him, and my Mom responded that it was because that was how battles were fought in Europe.
The next book of the series, A Light to My Path, did not actually receive a Christy Award, but I am still planning to read it. It has the character of Grady, a slave who was taken from his mother and sold in Candle in the Darkness.