Review

PUBLICATION DATE: MARCH 01, 2012

Q

uaker Hannah Sunderland has strictly followed her faith’s decision to avoid taking sides or arms in the Revolutionary War, even when it means that her family are forced from their home when it is commandeered by the army. But when news reaches her that her twin brother, who joined to Colonial cause, is in prison, she cannot ignore his needs. Her desire to help her brother brings her into contact with Colonial spy, Jeremiah Jones, a war veteran who lost his arm in the Seven Years War. They couldn’t be more dissimilar in their beliefs and lifestyles, but the common ground of needing access to the local prison – for personal and political reasons – binds them together. Hannah soon finds herself acting as a spy and attempting to stage an escape from the prison, but must keep her actions secret so that she doesn’t upset her fellow Quakers. But no one can ignore the amount of time she is spending with Jeremiah, and even Hannah cannot claim that theirs is only a business arrangement. As Hannah becomes more involved in the Colonial cause and is made aware of the dire conditions that the soldiers are living in, she cannot help but think that those of her faith have made a mistake in choosing to ignore the needs of these men. Can she reconcile her Quaker faith with her desire to help her brother and his fellow soldiers?

Recently I heard that popular Amish fiction author Suzanne Woods Fisher would be writing a historical series about the Quakers of Nantucket. In light of this discovery, and the recent release a romantic novella collection from Barbour, entitled Quakers of New Garden, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Quakers would soon to be joining the quaint tales of Amish, Mennonites and Shakers (although the latter aren’t particularly quaint, in my opinion) that have become so popular in the last few years. Siri Mitchell’s novel does not join the ranks of these stories. The best way to describe The Messenger is to say that it’s a gritty historical novel; it does not shy away from the uncomfortable details of life in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, and doesn’t attempt to gloss over any unsavoury details that wouldn’t usually appear in a Christian historical romance. There’s nothing inappropriate or particularly graphic, but if you prefer your historical novels to present the brighter side of life, then perhaps a novel about a Quaker woman breaking soldiers out of the squalor and filth of a war prison isn’t the novel for you.

The history in this book felt incredibly real, and I wasn’t surprised to read in the author’s note at the end of the novel that many of the events in The Messenger were based on true stories. I’ve always preferred my historical novels to be enriched by their historical detail, rather than peppered with a few brief references to historical-sounding items or clothing, but I’m also the first to admit that it’s hard to get the right blend of story-telling and history into a novel. On the one hand, if you focus too much on the plot, you risk ending up with a story which could honestly be set in any time period if it weren’t for a few references to chamber pots and a war gone by; on the other hand, you could alienate readers by overpowering your story with unnecessary details and retelling of contemporary events that mean absolutely nothing to the non-historian. Siri does it just right, intertwining the essential historical details with Hannah’s spiritual struggles and her budding relationship with Jeremiah. The story and its historical period naturally can’t be separated, but the details never come across as a history lesson either.

Prior to reading The Messenger, I read a review from a friend who mentioned that the book didn’t have quite enough romance to satisfy them. Everyone has different levels of romance that they hope for in a novel, and for me, it often depends on who the characters are and what seems appropriate for their stage in life or the period they live in. I really didn’t know what to expect from a Quaker and a crippled war veteran who runs a pub, although I can assure you that I probably couldn’t have come up with a more unlikely couple if I’d tried. Ultimately, I thought that this novel had just the right amount of romance in it. Considering how reserved and standoffish Hannah could be, and Jeremiah’s insecurities about his ability to appeal to a woman in spite of his missing arm, the gentle growth of their relationship seemed entirely appropriate. This isn’t a novel full of passion and swooning, but there were some really touching scenes that showed how the characters had grown to care for each other without the need for any physical declarations of their love for each other. The development of Hannah’s faith was similarly displayed, never overtly preaching at the reader and gently intertwining her questions about her beliefs with the plot of the novel in a way that seemed entirely relevant.

I recently read an online interview with Siri in which she stated that she likes to take a specific time period or historical event that people claim they’d never want to read a about, and write a compelling novel to convince them otherwise.  Honestly, I never would have imagined a novel about a Quaker spy during the Revolutionary War, but she pulls it off. I can’t wait to see what Siri comes up with next. Ultimately, my only slight disappointment with The Messenger was in the ending. The book really sped up towards the conclusion, which made the open ending seem all the more abrupt. I turned the page expecting another chapter or at least an epilogue and felt a bit frustrated that the ending really was so open. It was optimistic, and not in an unrealistic manner considering all that the protagonists had been through, but ultimately it was up to the reader to decide where Hannah and Jeremiah’s relationship would go and what was going to happen to them next. While part of me wants to commend Siri for bravely giving her readers such an open ending, another part of me was just a little bit frustrated that the conclusion was so inconclusive.

Coming into the genre of Christian fiction a bit late in the day, I’ve sort of dived head first into the plethora of historical and Amish romance novels, grabbing wildly and often missing out on some of the genre’s best authors. When I finished this novel I found myself wondering how I could have been reading Christian historical fiction for two years and not yet discovered Siri Mitchell. The Messenger is an example of all that is good about this genre, and makes me proud to say that I endorse Christian novels. Believable characters, realistic spiritual journeys, heavily researched historical detail and a gentle and understated romance make The Messenger a novel I highly recommend to historical fiction fans.