Title “Refiner’s Fire” by Lynn Austin
This set of three books are all written about the same time period – the American Civil War – but told from different viewpoints. I wrote about the first in this series, “Candle in the Darkness” here, and I promised I would review them as a set when I had finished. The other titles are “Fire By Night” and “A Light To My Path” and though each one could be read as a standalone book, they are best read one after the other.
The first is told from the viewpoint of Caroline, a Southern plantation owner’s daughter who wages her own war against slavery while her neighbours and family fight for the right to “live their own lives without interference from the North”. The second centres on the life of Julia, Caroline’s cousin from Philadelphia, who in an effort to win the heart of a particular gentleman sets out to become a nurse for the injured soldiers. The third centres around the lives of several slaves and gives their perspective on the events of the war and what freedom means to them individually as well as collectively.
There is a strong Christian thread running throughout all three books which is not at all preachy or sentimental, and I found it rather empowering. The simple belief of the slaves is humbling and Lynn Austin handles some of the more difficult issues sympathetically and without judgement.
My overall impression?
I was enthralled by the first instalment and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the other two to complete the story. As with any sort of series, I am wary of the quality dropping off after the first couple but this was first class throughout all three books. All of the characters were entirely believable and I was moved to tears on more than one occasion by them. The narrative is strong throughout, and though there are quite a lot of characters to handle in each of the books it is not difficult to keep track of who’s who and who belongs where etc.
As a Brit, the events of the American Civil War are somewhat blurred in my mind but this series of books really helped me get things straight in my head. Locations, prominent figures, who was on which side, the importance of certain rivers, what the issue was in the first place etc – all these thing have become clearer in my mind and I have been prompted to some more research about the whole era.
Where is it set?
The main locations are Richmond, Virginia (first book); Philadelphia and Washington (second book); South Carolina and further south (third book).
Will I read the next in the series?
I couldn’t wait to read all three of these books and the story is closed. Well, almost. As far as the threads in all three books they are mostly tied up neatly but there’s always that question “but what happens next??”, and if Lynn Austin ever decides to write the next stage of these people’s lives then I would definitely read it.
Would I recommend it to my friends?
Definitely, yes. If you have any sort of interest in history, or Christianity, or warfare, or social history then this is a set of books for you. If you want a thumping good read then these are for you. If you want to pique your interest in a topic that you might have previously stayed away from because it is emotionally challenging then this set is also for you. Yes you will go through an emotional wringer but you will be glad you do.
I had to share this passage with you because I cried when I read it the first time and again when I read it out to my husband. This is taken from the third book; Grady is a boy slave who was sold by his master at the age of 9 and who has spent several years as a slave to a slave-trader, the worst sort of environment anybody could find themselves in. Delia is an elderly slave at the plantation Grady finds himself at after he parts company with the slave-trader.
Delia left him standing in the middle of the first room while she bustled around, closing the door, drawing shut the scraps of muslin that served as curtains, talking all the while.
“I been working here on the Fuller place all my life,” she said, “and I seen a lot of slaves coming and going, bought and sold. But I never did see one taken from his home as young as you. Did you have to leave your mama?”
Grady nodded, staring straight ahead at the whitewashed wall. He would not cry. But it upset him to realise that the memory of his mother’s face seemed faded and blurred after all this time, and he could no longer recall it clearly. But he did remember her gentle hands, and how she would hold him tightly in her arms. He hunched his shoulders and folded his arms across his chest, shivering as if he was cold. But the coldness he felt was deep inside him, not in the stifling cabin.
Delia rested her hand on his arm, startling him. When he looked at her he saw tears in his eyes. “It’s a hard thing for a boy as young as you to be leaving his mama, especially to go and live with a soul trader.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He swallowed.
“We’re all alone, Grady,” she said softly. “No one’s gonna see you cry.” She opened her arms to him.
Grady went to her and she pulled him close, holding him tightly, rocking him. How long had it been since anyone had held him this way? Esther had been the last person to hug him – on that last terrible morning. He’d been pushed and jammed into slave pens and ships’ holds, poked and prodded and beaten, but never held. The warmth of Delia’s body, the softness of her, slowly melted the hard lump of hatred in his chest. And as it melted into grief, he began to cry.
“You go ahead and cry for all the times you couldn’t, honey,” she said.
Grady wept for the terror, for the pain and the unfairness of the beatings. He cried for all the anguish he’d seen, the families who’d been cruelly torn apart, as he’d been torn from his family. He cried for the memory of green grass beneath his bare feet back home in Richmond; for his friend Caroline, with skin as white as the blossoms on the magnolia tree they’d climbed. He cried for the cold rain that had soaked him on the day he’d been snatched away, and for the coldness in Massa Fletcher’s face as he’d watched him go. Most of all, Grady cried for his mother, the beloved face he could no longer clearly recall.
“No one’s ever gonna know about this but you and me, Grady,” Delia murmured. She rubbed his back to soothe him. He remembered his mama doing the same thing, and he sobbed.