PUBLICATION DATE: AUGUST 01, 2012
s tension is building in the South in 1861, Lyndel Keim and Nathaniel King couldn’t be more detached from the conflict in their Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While they debate the evils of slavery and whether the confederate states really pose a threat to the union, all of these thoughts are purely theoretical until Lyndel discovers two runaway slaves in her family’s barn. The reality of slavery is suddenly made apparent to Lyndel, Nathaniel and their families, and when the slaves are recaptured by their master, Nathaniel cannot help but wish he had done more to protect them. Under the guise of visiting another Amish community in Indiana, Nathaniel signs on to fight for the Union army, leaving his blossoming relationship with Lyndel behind in Pennsylvania. But Lyndel understands Nathaniel’s desire to fight the battle against slavery, and quickly volunteers as a nurse in a hospital in Washington. War cannot keep them apart for long, and Lyndel finds herself closer and closer to the battlefield every day, witnessing the true horror of war as she treats men who have been pulled from the fields of battle only moments before. Like her family back home in Lancaster, Lyndel longs for the fighting to end, but until then, she will nurse as many men as possible – Union and Confederate alike. But her family doesn’t understand her desire to help, and interprets her work as aiding the war efforts rather than diminishing it. How can Lyndel and Nathaniel, raised as pacifists but now living in the midst of a raging war, explain to their families that war may be the only way to put an end to the evils of slavery?
When I began to read The Face of Heaven, I couldn’t help but find a few similarities to the first book in the Snapshots in History series, The Wings of Morning. As in the first in the series, an Amish man bears arms in a war that the rest of his Amish community opposes, and his beau takes to nursing, also bearing scrutiny from her friends and family. Considering how quickly the roles of soldier and nurse fell into place for Nathaniel and Lyndel in The Face of Heaven, I was a little worried that I was reading a repeat of the storyline from The Wings of Morning, simply set during a different war. But as I got further into the novel, it became clear that Murray was going to take Nathaniel and Lyndel’s story on an entirely different route from the protagonists in the first book in the series, and their involvement in the war against the wishes of their pacifist Amish community really were the only similarities they bore to the characters in The Wings of Morning.
When discussing pacifism with friends or family, the same statement is bound to be made at some point during the conversation: “Pacifism just isn’t practical.” While reading The Face of Heaven, I got the impression that this was how Nathaniel felt about the Civil War and the fight against slavery. He could not sit idly by and wait for the Englishers to settle the matter on their own, as he may have done if the conflict were over any other matter. I doubt that Nathaniel, or any of the other Amish men who fought in the Civil War, would have been so eager to take arms if this had been a war about ownership of land. Their belief that God created all men equal, even those of a different race from themselves, was what propelled them into bearing arms despite their previous convictions on the matter. Continually throughout this novel I got a sense of the conflict of interests regarding war and taking another man’s life in battle. Was it right to kill if you were saving someone else’s life? Setting someone else free from the chains of slavery? Fighting for what you knew was right according to God’s Word? As someone with serious pacifist leanings, I could really sympathise with Nathaniel’s internal conflict, and I’m sure other readers will find themselves similarly wrapped up in it.
While the romance in The Wings of Morning was rather minimal, since Lyyndaya and Jude were in separate countries for a large portion of the book, the relationship between Lyndel and Nathaniel in The Face of Heaven was definitely more to my liking. Although their courtship was only beginning when Nathaniel decided to join the Union army, it was kept alive by letters and brief encounters when Lyndel was allowed to nurse at the front lines of the battle. The growth of their relationship seemed very realistic, considering the conflict, and I was rooting for them to stay together despite all that was conspiring to keep them apart. I can see why wartime romances are among the most popular, with every moment the hero and heroine spend together having a heightened sense of importance, since it may very well be the last time they see each other. I didn’t realise quite how enraptured I’d become with Lyndel and Nathaniel’s relationship until Lyndel went searching for Nathaniel after the battle of Gettysburg. I’m not going to deny it; there were tears in my eyes as Lyndel searched for her beau.
If I have one major complaint to make about The Face of Heaven, it has to be the character of Hiram and the amount of detail he was able to provide on any area of the war at any time. I know that as a newspaper reporter, he would know a lot more about the war than the average soldier or nurse since he had more contact with the outside world, but at times it did feel like he was quoting passages from my high school history textbook. I often thought that Nathaniel and Lyndel understood the war and how it was progressing in a manner that wasn’t entirely realistic, even considering their friendship with Hiram. Likewise, I didn’t completely buy into how quickly Nathaniel and Lyndel decided they needed to take a stand against slavery, in response to their one incident with the runaway slaves. Although these factors didn’t entirely disrupt my enjoyment of the novel, there were just a few moments when the characters’ understanding of the progression of the war didn’t seem completely realistic, or seemed to be contrived for the sake of moving the story along, as in the case of Nathaniel and Lyndel’s strong thoughts on slavery at the start of the novel.
What I loved most about this book wasn’t the emotionally heightened romance or the portrayal of an Amish man’s desire to fight against slavery. In all honesty, it was the way in which Murray brought the battles of the US Civil War to life on the page. When I studied this war in my final year of high school, I enjoyed learning about the run up to the war, the aftermath and the end of slavery, but the facts about the battles themselves genuinely bored me to sleep. But Murray brought realism to these ordeals and humanised them, making me care about how the war progressed, in a way that I hadn’t cared when I was in high school. I can appreciate this book for making me take an interest in whether Lyndel would ever see Nathaniel again, and for helping me to understand the internal conflict that the characters felt about their pacifist upbringing, but what has remained with me after finishing this book is the level of realism I felt in each and every one of the battle scenes. Even if you’re normally put off by bonnets, buggies or any form of romance, The Face of Heaven is worth reading purely for the way in which it brings the US Civil War to life. I have high hopes for the third book in the Snapshots in History series and can’t wait to read Murray’s take on the Second World War.