A Light in the Wilderness is a historical fiction that is based on fact. The main character, Letitia, actually existed. The principle points of history and her part in them actually happened although the minute details have been lost over time. However, official records contain enough information that along with the well-researched facts of events of that time period, the author’s fictionalization makes this character and other main players in the story, come alive. The book is well worth the time to read. I highly recommend it.
Letitia was a former slave for the Bowman family in Kentucky. Before the senior Bowman passed on, he freed her and provided her papers to prove her status. Later, when the younger Bowman and his wife moved to Missouri, she went with them. They bartered with her, trading her care of their children for a place to live. During her years in Missouri, she obtained a job at a local hotel doing the laundry, making up the rooms and occasionally serving drinks in the evenings. She also possessed the skills of a midwife. With her savings she bought her own milk cow and earned a little more income selling the milk. For a person with such a tiny stature, she had a big heart and a strong, determined, enterprising personality. In the pre-civil war days, life was especially hard for free blacks. They were often despised by slaves and whites alike. But Letitia was proud of her status as a free woman. She valued and carefully guarded her papers at all times.
After leaving the Bowman family Letitia boarded with an Irish cattleman. He allowed her cow, Charity, to pasture on his land in exchange for meals, some light housekeeping and milk from time to time. Davey Carson was a former trapper and trader. He and his family settled in the North Carolina area after they emigrated from Ireland. Most of his family stayed there while Davey, because of a bit of restlessness in his nature, headed further west. At the opening of this book, he was a cattleman in Missouri and middle-aged. He had settled down but had never married. Many Irish immigrants suffered the same treatment as slaves and free blacks, so when Davey met Letitia, he felt a kinmanship with her. However, still feeling the urge to move west, he began to think of going on to Oregon with some of the families that were continually passing through their area on the way. After a time boarding with him, the two grew to care for each other. Davey wanted Tish to go with him as his wife. The local laws made it impossible for him to legally marry her, so they conducted their own ceremony, read some words from the Bible, and committed themselves to each other as husband and wife before God. They even jumped a broom, a remnant of an old African custom.
Davey and Tish’s trip to Oregon was filled with peril, danger and conflict. They didn’t always agree how things should be done; they were both strong-willed and set in their ways. But they made it to Oregon Territory and established a farm. That wasn’t the end of their adventures and troubles. The territory had some contradicting and troublesome laws on the books that made life difficult for Tish and her children…especially the exclusion laws. Some of their troubles came with them over the Oregon Trail; an antagonist by the name of G.B. Smith was one of the worst.
In the purest sense of the term, this book is not really a romance. There are romantic elements in the story, but my opinion is that Davey and Tish stayed together because he was kind, generous and needed a partner, while Tish needed his protection and security and was fond of him. She didn’t mind providing him with children. I consider this tale more of a historical fiction than a romance. Still, their relationship provided a catalyst for change toward maturity in their lives. Letitia grew in confidence about her place in life, while Davey settled down a bit more to be a responsible husband and father. However, that restlessness of his got him into trouble one last time and cost him his life.
The author, Jane Kirkpatrick, is a true storyteller. She created characters that were easy for me to empathize with. I felt fear and anger and sadness for all the unfairness Letitia faced in her life. I rejoiced when she discovered true friendship with neighbors with whom they traveled to Oregon. I felt the pain she went through when people turned their backs on her because of her skin color, and after Davey died. I could understand Davey’s wanderlust, and yet felt Tish’s frustration when he left her and their children a couple months at a time when it hit him. I could feel justified anger and frustration with Tish in her fight to keep her home after Davey had passed on. I was completely wrapped up in the story. Those are the signs of a good storyteller.
I read a lot of historical fiction works, and yet there were several facts revealed in this book I had never heard before–some things about living in Missouri in that time period, some new information about the trip to Oregon over the mountains and through dangerous territory, and definitely about Oregon itself during its formation years. One way the author shares tidbits of history and viewpoints is through the narration. But what stood out most to me was how the author shared perspectives through her characters’ thoughts. I admire how the author accomplished this; she even pushed the envelope a bit using this method. By sharing a person’s point of view about the harsh realities they faced, the author presented conflict and resolution while still remaining within the confines of compassionate Christian fiction.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from The Book Club Network on behalf of Revel, a division of Baker Publishing Group. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”