Friday, March 9, 2012

Review: The Messenger by Siri Mitchell

Hannah Sunderland is a young Quaker woman during the American Revolutionary War. She feels pretty firm in her faith...the Quakers are pacifists and were refraining from any involvement in the War, but mostly from supporting the revolutionaries. Philadelphia is besieged by the British, and eventually they take quarter in her family's home, forcing them to flee to her non-Quaker relatives house.

Jeremiah Jones is war veteran who lost an arm in a previous war. He feels bitter towards the British for not saving his arm, and has been working as a spy in a mission to free some prisoners. He needs some help getting a message to the prisoners, but no one is allowed to visit them. His blossoming friendship with Hannah provides an opportunity for him to approach her for help, and since her brother is in the prison, she agrees.

I always enjoy Siri Mitchell's novels because they are a cut above most of the Christian fiction being published today. While the novel certainly conforms to certain standards in the genre, i.e. no profanity and no explicit sex, they delve more deeply into ideas of faith and are not afraid to ask hard questions. The Messenger was no different. Hannah is a Quaker, and to be honest, I've always admired Quakers. I've been amazed at some of their social justice movements throughout history, and so I was really excited to read this book. I was surprised by how restrictive they were in the book, though, for example in some ways they seemed almost Amish. If a member did not accept the authority of the Meeting, they were disowned, which seems really extreme. But I think a lot of it also had to do with how the individual characters chose to apply their faith and that was definitely one of the best parts of the book.

Ultimately this is a story about a woman grappling with her ideas of faith and confronting how her own ideas about truth might come into conflict with her community. As Hannah continues to help the rebels, and sees the conditions of the prisoners, her ideas are challenged. She can't fall back on the things she's always believed to be true because they don't line up with what she's actually seeing and experiencing in her daily life. She becomes more and more uncomfortable with the status quo at her Meetings. And this is slightly spoilerish, but what I love so so much, most of all, is that this never becomes an all or nothing decision for Hannah. She's not forced to choose between what she knows to be true with her ideas of faith even if she is forced to sacrifice other things. There's no easy decision, but a compromise of sorts exists. I feel like that compromise is the thing so many of us look for who grew up in certain kinds of faith traditions.

I also thought, in light of all the Invisible Children stuff going on, that there was a fantastic side story about the Friends and how they didn't approve of slavery and how they chose to express that. While Hannah would go on and on to the slave who accompanied her about how she deserved to be free, and Hannah's father would throw fits at the house they were staying at about the slaves they kept, this ultimately made things harder for the slaves they were purportedly trying to help. As this exchange shows,
"'He's only doing what he does because he believes that thee--and all the others--should be freed.'
'He entitled to his opinion, but he got no right to make life harder for us.'"
And then later,
"'That's how you folks always are. You look at us and you think we poor Negroes. That we don't know what we want. Well, we people too! And it don't help to have you folks pretend to be something you not.'"
This really stood out to me, because I think that while a lot of people have been well meaning during this whole thing, being well meaning is not enough. It's important to be educated, and also to let people who know what they're talking about educate you. (One of the first bloggers I ever knew is a political scientist who specializes in sub-Saharan Africa and she's been caught up in tweeting about all of this quite a bit. She outright said that accurate coverage > no coverage > inaccurate coverage. She's written about the concept of badvocacy if you're interested.)

Additionally, I was a little frustrated that Doll (the slave) seemed a bit one dimensional as a character, but I realized this was intentional later when Hannah is genuinely shocked to learn Doll is married with children. Hannah has been going on about her freedom and how she thinks she should try to escape but she doesn't even really know Doll and she isn't at all familiar with her situation. So many times the Friends are acting on the things they believe and eliminating the human equation. Sure their position on slavery was..right? But it became about self-righteousness for Hannah's father and not genuine love for humanity.

Also, this is a romance novel. But it really doesn't feel like one at all. It's a reluctant romance, Jeremiah and Hannah don't really like each other all that much at first, it's only through working together and seeing each other through difficult times, that their feelings for one another grow. And it's not based at all on physical appearance, which is so rare, and kind of refreshing. They just fall in love while doing all this big scary spy work and learning to rely on each other in difficult times and truly seeing each other. The book is told in dual narratives, Jeremiah and Hannah's first person POVs.

Despite how much I appreciated the depth of this book and its interesting and unique premise, it's not perfect. At times it dragged just a little. I felt some of the characters might have benefitted from being fleshed out more and that would have serviced the overall story. Even so, it's nice to know I can rely on Siri Mitchell to consistently deliver interesting, thought provoking historical novels that have relevance to today's world.

Rating: 4.5/5
Source of Book: Review copy received from publisher
Publisher: Bethany House


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