PUBLICATION DATE: JULY 3, 2012
ophia Makinoff thought she had her entire life planned out. She was to marry a congressman and become a woman of substantial influence in the political world – that is, until the congressman in question decided that her roommate would make a better wife than Sophia. Humiliated, Sophia takes the first opportunity she has and escapes the women’s college where she used to teach, signing up to become a missionary. But although the life of a missionary appealed to her, Sophia imagined that she would be spending her time witnessing to natives in China, not teaching the poverty-stricken children of the Ponca tribe in Nebraska. The way her students live couldn’t be further from what Sophia experienced as a child, growing up amongst nobility in Russia. The other agency workers are reticent to Sophia, both because she wasn’t born on American soil and because her Orthodox Christian beliefs confuse them. Sophia doesn’t see how she’s ever going to adapt to life with the Poncas, but as she becomes aware of how much her students need and how little the government provides them with, she uses the links and influence from her previous lifestyle to aid the Agency’s work. But no amount of letter-writing can stop the government from moving the Poncas away from their homeland to Indian Territory. Sophia and the other agency workers fight to stop this move from occurring, but only Sophia and Will, the agency carpenter, truly know the full effects of such a decision. Will is the only employee who has learned the Ponca’s language and understands when Sophia needs to bend the Agency’s rules to suit the needs of her students. But it seems that all of their efforts will have been in vain, if the Poncas are forced from their homes. Will this also mean the end for Sophia and Will’s relationship, if they no longer have their common cause to unite them?
Although I had my issues with the structuring of Catherine Richmond’s debut novel, Spring for Susannah, her writing showed a lot of originality and promise, which prompted me to add Through Rushing Water to my wish list as soon as I heard about it. I was a little cautious at approaching Through Rushing Water, in case the book didn’t live up to its absolutely stunning cover, but thankfully this novel far surpassed my expectations. The little quirks that made Spring for Susannah so unique have come into their fullness in Catherine’s second novel, proving that new and innovative books can still come out of the Christian historical fiction genre.
One of the things that can grate me about any novel that deals with racism or the treatment of minority groups is the sheer improbability that the average white American in any given time period just happens to have not bought into the racial stereotypes of their peers. What are the chances, honestly, that the daughter of a prosperous plantation owner in Texas in 1850 just happens to be a militant abolitionist? Through Rushing Water, thankfully, avoids this problem by making Sophia an outsider to the issue of Christianising and relocating Indian groups. Although Sophia has lived in the United States for several years and taught at a women’s college in New York, she was brought up in Russia and also spent part of her life in France. She’s familiar with other cultures and races, and this allows her to see the treatment of the Poncas from a different angle from those she works with. While I was initially surprised that Catherine had chosen a non-American heroine for her novel, it was a pleasant surprise, especially to a reader who is also an outsider to American culture. Sophia’s background and experiences of other cultures brought an angle to Through Rushing Water that just couldn’t have been explored with an American heroine without seeming too forced or modernised, and I commend Catherine for taking a step outside the traditional comfort zones of Christian fiction to choose a non-American heroine.
As I mentioned previously, my biggest struggle with Spring for Susannah was the unconventional pacing of the novel. When I reached the three-quarters mark in Through Rushing Water and realised that Sophia’s time with the Poncas was coming to an end, I did wonder if this chance of pace and location was going to affect my rating of this book. But what I expected to be a flaw in this novel actually ended up making it more realistic. Anyone who has studied this period of history knows that Sophia couldn’t have saved the Poncas from being relocated to Indian Territory, and her move to the city of Omaha actually brought a lot of contextualisation into the story. Sophia’s encounters with her new friends and neighbours made her realise how little the people of Nebraska knew about the local tribes and she was able to use her experiences as an opportunity to educate those who had bought into stereotypes about “wild Indians”. As much as I love a neatly tied-up happy ending, I felt that the end of Through Rushing Water was optimistic yet realistic in the way it was left open, with the hope that Sophia might still be able to help the Poncas while living in Omaha.
The final quarter of the novel also allows Sophia’s relationship with Will to develop. Some readers may be disappointed that the hero and heroine found little time to profess their love for each other while working among the Poncas, but again, this is probably quite understandable, given the stressful conditions under which they were living and working. Towards the end of the book, we get the chance to see their relationship blossom under different circumstances, and Sophia and Will realise the false nature of the assumptions they had made about each other when they first met. Their romance is sweet, but not the main focus of the novel. That said, I did love the epilogue, which not only gives hope for the Ponca tribe but also for Sophia and Will’s relationship. Some epilogues can come across as cheesy in the way that they skip forward a few years to prove that the hero and heroine are still happy, but Through Rushing Water managed to avoid this while still being optimistic.
Through Rushing Water is far from being a conventional historical romance, considering the Russian heroine, unusual plot progression and focus on historical details over romantic intrigue. I encourage potential readers to not be put off by these quirks that so endeared Through Rushing Water to me, and to take a chance on a budding author who I hope will continue to bring something original to this popular genre.
hen her dreams of becoming a woman of influence as the wife of a Congressman come crashing down around her, Sophia Mackinoff makes a rash decision. She signs up to be a missionary, thinking she will be going to China. Originally from Russia, Sophia thinks she will serve in China for a few years and then make her way back to her homeland. When the Mission Board sends her to be a teacher to the children of the Ponca Indian Tribe in Dakota Territory, she is sure it is a mistake.
The more time Sophia spends with the Poncas, the more she grows to love them. Her students are bright and eager to learn even while their circumstances break Sophia’s heart. The man who has been the carpenter in the Ponca tribe for three years, Will Dunn, has a heart for the people as well. As he and Sophia work with this peaceful tribe, they get to know each other better, and they wonder if there could be more in store for them in the future than just a friendship.
The Poncas live with the constant threat of removal from their homeland. What will become of the tribe – and of Will and Sophia – if this threat becomes a reality?
I very much have conflicting feelings about this book.
On the one hand, the novel was rich in historical detail and feeling. The events that are described in this novel actually happened to the Ponca tribe, and some of the characters were real people (Standing Bear, for one). I truly felt for the Poncas and the horrible treatment they received at the hand of the U.S. government. I appreciated the feelings that Will and Sophia had towards this native tribe, especially how Sophia’s love for the people grew throughout the novel. In addition, Sophia’s growth in her reliance on God was inspiring. I liked the characters of Will and Sophia, and I was cheering for them all the way.
On the other hand, there were things about this novel that were distracting. While I liked both Will and Sophia, and I appreciated their journey to each other, I’m not sure I got to know them as well as I would have liked. I’m not really sure why this was the case. Maybe it was because a lot of the writing felt disjointed. Some scenes were quite vague while others were told with great description. The dialogue was also very difficult to follow at times. I’m hoping that this was because I was reading a digital galley – the paragraph structure is not always true to form in those – but sometimes I couldn’t tell who was talking because the speaker was not identified. I don’t think the dialogue issue was because of the galley. I also thought that Will and Sophia’s part of the story got long towards the end.
The spiritual side of the story was a bit confusing to me at times, too. It was hard for me to tell if the Native Americans were considered Christians because they had accepted Christ or because they went to church and had become more ‘civilized.’ I realize that many of the missionaries of that time were misguided in that aspect – that they just wanted to force the tribes to ‘become white’ and therefore Christian, which, of course, is way off the mark. Sophia and Will didn’t necessarily think that way, but it was still unclear a lot of the time whether any of the characters in the book had a true relationship with Christ or whether they just called themselves Christians because they had always believed in God or because they attended church.
There are many novels out there that tell a ‘fish-out-of-water’ tale, and this novel does that, but in a little bit different way. Sophia’s character in this novel had every opportunity to be the socialite who suddenly finds herself in the wilderness with no idea how to survive. This particular plot point in Through Rushing Water was so much more than that. Yes, Sophia was currently out of her element, and she was certainly naïve about a lot of things. However, she had not always been a socialite. The things she experienced in her homeland of Russia, the things she learned from the hardships in her past, they all added up to prepare her to be a missionary and teacher to the Poncas. My favorite part of this book was the theme that God had sent exactly the right person to the Ponca tribe for that situation and for that time. Just thinking about that motivates me to be willing to serve wherever Gods wants me to be.
The inspiring story and historical detail are what make this a compelling novel. As a historical fiction book, this one is really good. If I had been able to follow it a little bit better, I would have liked it even more.