Monday, November 09, 2009

Fire By Night by Lynn Austin

publisher: Bethany House

rating: ****

Fire By Night may be my favourite novel of the year. This is a big statement coming from a bibliophile, I know, but when I think of Lynn Austin’s works I think of how they differ from my usual run-of-the-mill reading and reviewing. Though the second in the Refiner's Fire Series: each tackling a different perspective (north, south, slave ) of the Civil War, it can be read as a stand-alone.

I usually look for expert characterization, deftly-woven plot, some humour, some sparkle, some originality: some historical what-have-you in my historicals; some carefully-planted mayhem in my murder mysteries; the books that make me giggle and clap and gasp at their brilliance ( I have said before, I am an effusive reader). Lynn Austin ignites all of these things.

What makes Lynn Austin special to me ( for special she is ) is the fact that her works hit me on a deeper, spiritual level.

This is not mere infatuated emotionalism: the kind I reserve for the books I love, love, love. Austin validates in an erudite and carefully plotted fashion the role and journey of any woman of faith

Reading a Lynn Austin book for me is empowering: spiritually, emotionally, personally.

When her profundities surge through the page I am not just rattled in my usual “La! Such brilliance fashion”; but rattled, rather, to the core.

If I am having an off-kilter moment, if I am grappling at some truth in relation to Christianity if I am feeling, what with all my passionate opinions and strict independence, like I do not fit the mold of the ideal Christian woman ---Lynn Austin makes it okay.

As aforementioned in previous blog entries, Austin’s greater thesis ( what strings each of her books though splayed through different historical periods together) is the role of women : in the church; in history; as part of God’s master plan.

And Austin allows us to find malleability in these roles. Rather than dictate: This! is the ideal or This! suits a woman to her greater purpose, she extends and stretches and validates whatever a Woman chooses ---as long as---- and here is the deliciously jubilant caveat--- as long as your role aligns with the Master’s.

I can think of no more wonderful and empowered subservience.

In Fire by Night, two very different women stretch the bounds of society’s constriction and find God’s plan in anomalous ways: Phoebe clads herself in male attire and joins the army; prim and society-bred Julia finds greater purpose in working as a nurse.

Romance is involved, yes, but only ordained if it enhances the already well-established independence of the woman.

For example, Julia’s eventual suitor loves the traits ( her outspokenness, her defiance, her scorn of all that is “ societally” approved” ) that her previous and erstwhile suitor Nathaniel disdained.

Both women make up two parts of a whole: both strengths ( decidedly different and yet interconnected) allow each to establish God’s purpose.

This is not feminism, nor equalism so much as God-driven purpose .

A woman, argues the novel, can be any role: be it domestic, a “man’s role”; a servant’s role as long as she is aligned with God.

One such instance has Julia questioning her burgeoning station away from her heritage and upbringing. Having oft-heard her fiancĂ© Nathaniel’s talk of God’s purpose, she rallies with a truthful cry to the extent of a question: Can’t women hear God’s voice and follow His purpose too? In a male dominated society, entrenched in tradition and war, Julia and Phoebe are caught at the turning of the tide. No longer, argues Austin, will women be content to stay underappreciated in the household, not when circumstance has forced them out to the front and to hone the God-given skills they were made for.

I have underlined and highlighted numerous passages in Fire By Night and, though a historical novel, I feel it is surged with the message that I needed as a young and independent struggling to find what God wants: be it through the traditional structure afforded women --- or by blazing a path, not as severe as Phoebe’s place in war but just as important.

Austin sends a much-needed jolt when it is needed most . Her arguments are sound; her message pronounced and strong and the fact that she is a gorgeous writer heightens her validity.

Yes, this is a compulsively readable novel of romance, war, adventure and coming-of-age and self. Yes, it has mystery and wonder and heart-pulsing moments but, to me ,it is so much more: it is Austin’s medium for empowering women: for rallying a cry with the oft-forgotten message that ( to steal from “Though Waters Roar”, her latest book): “God never expects us to be anyone but ourselves.” Phoebe and Julia; dimensional and flawed are walking encapsulations of this: God never asks them to surrender who they are but embraces each flaw, validates them and appraises their purpose--- no matter how far stretched, no matter how improper, no matter how unexpected.

I encourage every one to find a Christian author who speaks to them in this way---- for you’ll soon realize ( as is so wonderful and such a jubilant anomaly in the trade) that they are being directed by a much higher purpose to propel you to what you might need to hear: be it through theology, fiction, letter, prose ….

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