Hannah Thomas left the South and all that was familiar to marry her beloved John. But the fact that she’s never been quite accepted by his mother and sister and that she doesn’t quite fit the strict Massachusetts Puritan community only becomes more difficult when John is killed in one of the first battles in the war for freedom. Hannah is allowed to continue to serve as lightkeeper for the twin tower lighthouses on the lonely coastline, but it is grueling work for a woman alone. One of the first shipwrecks washes ashore a handsome captain she thinks is a Tory, but she soon finds out he’s working as a spy for Washington. Much stands in the way of their happiness including the need to protect his secret, pressure from John’s family to marry another, near-constant disapproval from the townspeople, and the appearance of Hannah’s wayward sister. Coupled with the strain of war, Hannah isn’t sure she’ll ever see the light of freedom.
Some time ago, young Hannah Thomas was being courted by Galen Wright, a man who seemed lovely and attentive enough at first but later proved to have a terrifying dark streak to his soul. His interest in her turned obsessive. To protect herself from further unwanted attentions from him, Hannah agrees to a marriage to the lighthouse keeper of Gurnet, Massachussetts, a man some 20 years her senior. Though it might have not been a traditional love match, over the course of their first year of marriage, the two did develop a comfortable companionship.
Now Hannah is eighteen and has just received word that her husband, who had gone off to fight in the Revolutionary War, has been killed. Widowed, left without the protection of her husband's person or name, Hannah is fearful of what the future holds but continues to do her best to hold down the fort, both literally and figuratively. She has the slight misfortune of living just down the road from a difficult, nosy mother-in-law but does her best to keep relations there as civil as possible, though MIL makes it clear she does not like Hannah taking up her son's work at the lighthouse. She's also slyly made it know that she does not want Hannah to continue carrying the family name, though Hannah's brother-in-law has made an offer. Needing some distraction from all this family noise, not to mention some companionship, Hannah invites her younger sister, Lydia, to come stay with her. All is quite cozy and fun until Galen shows his face in town and Hannah is increasingly distressed with just how much interest Lydia is showing in him.
Then comes the pivotal night when Hannah fails to keep the lighthouse flame burning and a ship wrecks on Gurnet's shores. Much of the crew is lost, but Hannah manages to save the captain, Birch Meredith. Seeing his leg is severely damaged, she brings him into her home where he spends the next weeks & months recovering. During this time, a testy friendship develops. Though they amuse each other and Birch gets a kick out of Hannah's quietly fiesty nature, they struggle to bridge the political divide between them. Hannah, fiercely for the Revolution, cannot bring herself to accept that Birch is Team Loyalist (meaning he wishes for the United States to remain under British rule). Birch has reasons and secrets for his actions, but revealing them to anyone, even Hannah, is just too risky in these times.
image courtesy of SlidePlayer.com
"American Revolution: Treatment of Loyalists"
Covertly working for the US under the leadership of then General George Washington, Birch comes and goes from Hannah's life throughout the course of the novel, though she is never far from his thoughts. Birch is set on avenging the death of his brother, the killer being someone close to Hannah's circle (though she's unaware). General Washington reminds Birch not to let lust for revenge distract him from the mission of securing independence for the United States.
Guess I was unintentionally on Team Loyalist while reading!
Each time Birch reappears, Hannah finds her convictions shaken just a little more. Her friendship with Birch causes a growing fury within her Puritan community. More than once, she is brought before the elders to answer for her actions. At one of these tribunal sessions, in so many words the church elders basically say it's not so bad to throw yourself at a man as long as he's not a Loyalist! LOL But they later backtrack on this, saying Hannah really should answer "for the state of your soul", something they weren't AS concerned about a moment before, telling her "you and your God alone know the state of your heart."
There is a noticeable amount of inspiration pulled from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in this story, but I checked the author's note at the end and I don't see Colleen Coble fessin' up to it. Instead, she mentions that this is a story that's "languished in my virtual drawer for eighteen years...". She goes on to say that it wasn't previously published due to Revolutionary War era material being a tough sell. I'm assuming she meant within the Christian Fiction market, where she has since found her fame? I'd say it has a healthy enough fan base within other genres.
But back to the P & P similarities: First, there's Lydia. Not only does Hannah's sister share a name with Elizabeth Bennett's little sister, but she also gets into a similar fix. Both Lydias appear to have a weakness for a uniformed man.
Take out Galen Wright, insert George Wickham... OMG I just now realized they even have the same initials. But yeah, the guys are interchangeable with the same goal of getting their grubby, libidinous hands on a young innocent for the sake of getting closer to the older sister. Likewise, we have the arrival of Captain Birch Meredith mimicking the entrance of Fitzwilliam Darcy... in both instances, the ladies having an abrasive early introduction to the men which later turns into playful friendship and then love. Much in the way Darcy helps Elizabeth save & protect Lydia from Wickham, Captain Meredith from Freedom's Light sets out to take down Galen Wright and his cohorts and help get Lydia back to the safety of her sister, Hannah.
Though Coble first crafted this novel nearly twenty years ago, there are themes addressed here that not only make for an engaging historical read -- leading readers to think on experiences of our ancestors -- but still read relevant to today's times. Coble does a fair job tackling sexism of the 1700s. Take Hannah, our main character. Hannah, having served as her husband's assistant tending the lighthouse, she learns all about the care and maintenance of the light and how much the sailors rely on these towers for safety. She takes up her husband's post while he's away at war, and once she hears of his death she reasons that someone still must tend to the light. She has the training, so why not her? But nope, nope, nope.... the very idea unnerves the community. I mean, she's out there painting the tower in PANTS, people! The woman is just trying to do her best to live a right and good life, she has a defined moral code she guides herself by, but because the image of it all doesn't match the preferences of those in power, the community won't let up on her!
by Baron Theodore Gudin (1848)
Then let's consider Birch. Though I liked Birch generally as a character and found him quite warm and funny for most of the story, his ageist side irked me. Perhaps I'm more sensitive to it as I creep along my 30s.... and from what I've read of history, his attitude was not uncommon... but UGH. There was a scene where Birch attends a party hosted by Molly Vicar. Birch is there to spy on Galen and his crew, but keeps making it a point to note how amazing it is that Molly Vicar can still capture attention and turn heads at her age of "around 40". Imagine that, a woman making it to that age and somehow avoiding the expected metamorphosis into a bridge troll! One line of this I likely would've laughed and overlooked, but Birch brings it up multiple times in this ONE scene! I was going to root for the character of Molly Vicar until she made the "any man that doesn't want me must be gay" (paraphrasing here) comment. Nevermind, a girl that smug can end up with whatever LOL.
While I've not been the biggest fan of Coble's more modern novels -- while decently written, I find many of them bland and forgettable -- I was cheering for this one because it left me thinking Hallelujah, Coble finally showing some edge to her writing! Looking over the reviews of others though, seems many did NOT like this aspect of this novel. In Freedom's Light, Coble incorporates espionage, hangings, whippings, sexual assault / rape, hostage situations and babies born out of wedlock. I've seen many reviews criticize Coble for putting this out there, crying "How dare you?!" Well, here's the thing folks. History --- real history, not the sanitized Hallmark image you must have in your mind --- plays dirty. Since the dawn of civilization, people have made questionable choices for the sake of love, survival, money, power, what have you. That includes such things as murder, rape, illegitimate children, etc. Open a real, non-fiction history book and it's all in there. It's DANGEROUS to never acknowledge the darker side of human nature. So I say yes, put them in novels. Make people look at it. And then craft characters around it who show us how to overcome such situations! Give us a sense of hope in dark times!
Consider Hannah and her interactions with Birch: Hannah has strong faith which in turn provides her with strength and belief in herself and her abilities to overcome any of life's difficulties. Birch, fueled by rage and a need for revenge over the murder of his younger brother, scoffs at any mention of religion. Hannah urges him to reconsider his feelings. As time passes and Birch's love for Hannah grows, he confesses that if he could just have her, he'd let go of everything else. She could save him! Hannah calmly and wisely explains something vitally important for him to understand: it is incredibly foolhardy for a person to pin all their hopes of faith, salvation or redemption on any one person. Sure, others can help you along the path but putting all your eggs in one basket (so to speak) only leads to a false sense of security.
"A Shipwreck In Stormy Seas" (1773)
by Claude-Joseph Vernet
Humans... humans are fallible by nature. Answers to questions regarding faith and life purpose can only be answered from inside one's soul. And typically those answers come about through surviving those most unpretty of life scenarios.
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.