Review of Barriers Burned Away; remembering the1871 Chicago Fire

A visit to Chicago not long after the Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871–151 years ago today–touched the heart of the author, Edward Payson Roe, and inspired him to write this novel, published in 1872.

Diorama of 1871 Chicago Fire – Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois

He seems to have asked himself:

How would people respond in a crisis that affected a community regardless of social rank, and how would the tragedy change them and their community, for better or worse?

…and…

How important are some of our typical pursuits—pleasure, popularity, recognition, wealth, and entertainment–compared to a day-by-day inner awareness of our value as a human being, our purpose on this earth, a sense of peace, and a realistic, solid basis of hope and security?

This is quite an extraordinary novel, and I LOVED IT. So much so that I now have this and several other E.P. Roe novels on my Kindle. (And I have given my used hardcover copy to a dear friend who loved the last 19th century novel I gave her!)

It is a detailed book about one of the things in our lives that we don’t necessarily focus on, but which is one of the most important: our spiritual life.

In this story a young man, Dennis, needs to leave his struggling family so he can make money to support them. He leaves his quiet rural area and moves to Chicago, one of the largest cities in the U.S. in 1871, when the story takes place.

Dennis and Christine work together at an art gallery, and have similar interests in art, including creating their own paintings. She and her father (the owner) are from a very wealthy European family, and look down on the newly hired young man with the worn-out clothes. Naturally Dennis is frustrated by that, but his value system isn’t based on popularity and people-pleasing, and he can still be relatively content at work while he earns enough to live on.

He has a heart of gold, and if he finds someone in his neighborhood or place of work that he can help, he pours his heart into it. So even in the unfriendly city he is never without genuine friends that support him. 

Perhaps this is the kind of art on their art gallery walls?
(Frederick Walker, The Old Farm Garden, 1871, public domain, picryl.com)

In time, Christine and the others at work are impressed by Dennis’s kindnesses, and the way Dennis respects himself. They notice he doesn’t compromise his values by mistreating them, regardless of how disrespectfully they treat him.

When Christine pretends to be falling in love with him in order to use him for her own purposes, Dennis calls her on it, scolding her for her rudeness and manipulation. It may be the first time in her life that she hears the truth about herself. She is further frustrated by her artistic limitations, seeming to be unable to paint an authentic expression of love on her canvas. She takes to heart Dennis’s words: “The stream cannot rise higher than its fountain.”

Dennis becomes seriously ill and is away from work for a while. During that time Christine realizes how much she cares for him, but her artistic and social ambitions take precedence over a relationship.

Then… the fire rages through Chicago with complete disregard to social status, providing a crucible for burning up the dross in many lives.

Chicago in Flames, by Currier and Ives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Where to find the book

The fact that it is so prevalent online attests to its past and present popularity.

You can read it for free, or download it in various formats, at Gutenberg.org, By the Fireplace, and Free Pages. You can buy hardcover and softcover versions (including facsimile reprints) at the usual places, such as Amazon and AbeBooks, for very reasonable prices.

Here is a short blurb about the book on an excellent website about the Chicago Fire, which includes a sample chapter (caution: spoiler).

Next post…

In my next post I will share what I’ve found about the Chicago Fire, the extraordinary talents and interests of author E.P. Roe, and more!

Happy reading!

Review of Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson

When I was in elementary school in Denver, Colorado, there was a book high on the top shelf of the school library that kept catching my eye. The book’s title was my name. How intriguing! I saw it year after year, but I couldn’t reach it, and anyway it looked too thick and grown-up to me. After I left elementary school, from time to time, I would run across the book. I got the impression that it was an overly historical book and very dull. Nevertheless, I’d often think, “One day I’m going to read that.”

Fast forward almost twenty years and I was now living in San Diego, California. One of the places a co-worker had taken me was called Old Town, a historical part of San Diego that included an area called “Ramona’s Marriage Place”. (Here is a photo of me there in 1981.) One day I was browsing around at the public library…and there it was! Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, Ramona. Well within reach now, and no time like the present, I checked it out. I was surprised to find out that it was considered a classic American novel. And to my amazement, this historical novel was set right THERE…in the San Diego area!

Serendipity!

This novel tells the story of Ramona, a half-native woman from a wealthy Spanish family, who meets Alessandro, one of the Native American shepherds near her home. They develop a friendship which turns into love, marriage, devotion and tragedy because of discrimination against her husband.

Helen Hunt Jackson delves into some politically incorrect territory for that time in history. In October of 1879, she learned about the plight of the Native Americans and the mistreatment they received from the government. Sympathizing with their cause, she toured many of their impoverished communities, and wrote articles and a book to publicize their struggles. In 1883 the plot of a novel came to her suddenly one morning, and she began writing.

Of course I highly recommend this classic novel. The inside flap of my 1912 edition says

For over a half century Helen Jackson’s romantic story of Spanish and Indian life in California has been widely read until it has become an American classic. Originally published in 1884, “Ramona” has been issued in various editions, with a total of 135 printings. The Atlantic Monthly has termed the story “one of the most artistic creations of American literature,” while the late Charles Dudley Warner [an American essayist, novelist, and friend of Mark Twain] called it “one of the most charming creations of modern fiction.” Born in 1831, Mrs. Jackson was an ardent champion of the Indians to the end of her useful life, in 1885. “Ramona” has been three times produced as a motion picture, been played on the stage, adapted for a pageant and may eventually be utilized for a grand opera.”

More of my personal connection

I have always had an interest and a special place in my heart for the Native Americans, so of course I loved this book with its focus on these people. That, along with the fact that it was a romance based on actual history, including characters living out their faith, made it nearly the perfect book. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that the tragedy in the story was softened by an unexpected ending of kindness.

The book inspired the Ramona Pageant, which is still performed in the hills of Hemet, California. It is said to be California’s Official Outdoor Play and the longest continuously running outdoor drama in the United States. The original “Ramona” movie came out in 1928, and was remade in 1936, starring Don Ameche and Loretta Young. I’d always known that my grandmother named me after the song, but when I found out that the song was created for the movie based on the book that I loved, I was beyond excited!

While I was growing up, many teachers and other adults sang the first few lines of the song to me, and I finally found a copy of the entire song online. It just so happens that I love it; it is a very sweet, flowing love song. I love the references to nature–hills, mountains, babbing brook, kissing the sky, meeting by the waterfall–and hearing the church “mission bells above”.

One year our family toured southern California and we stayed overnight in the town of Ramona, northeast of San Diego. The town was named to capitalize on the popularity of the fictional character from the best selling novel. I made sure we stopped in Temecula, one of the towns mentioned in the novel (much to my family’s disappointment!), where I purchased a book called The Annotated Ramona and a little Spanish maiden figurine as a memento. The book opened up the whole historical side of the book to me, as well as a biography of the author. I learned that later in her life she moved to Colorado, my home state. Magical!

Here is a postcard a friend in California recently sent me. Notice in the far lower right corner it says, “The Real Ramona”. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it is clearly quite an old photograph. Very intriguing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of my history, and will check out this wonderful book. It’s a gem!

Book Review of Destiny’s Hands, a novel by Violet Nesdoly

What was it like to be an artist thousands of years ago? What if that artist was a slave? How did people in another land—a land full of other gods and religions—find their way to God, and why?

The stories in the Bible are set in a time and place that I can’t always relate to, which has sometimes kept me from “living” the story as I read it. However, Biblical characters that come to life through a novel give me a kinship with these far away people, and bring the spiritual truths of scripture alive for me.

This book attracted me because it delves into the life and heart of Bezalel, an artist, a creative carver and goldsmith. I read it because I believed that it would give me a new perspective on how others take what is in their heart and shape it into a creative, visible form for the benefit of others. Destiny’s Hands gave me that perspective even more than I expected.

The author demonstrates her own creative talents by imagining Bezalel’s desire to succeed in his craft and his developing faith as he sees the power of God with his very eyes. It was fascinating to see him sort out his beliefs from those of his family, in contrast to those of his co-workers and his community, and to find an authentically personal communion with the living God.

Just the right amount of description and scene put me into the story setting without making me restless to get back to the exciting plot. I loved learning about life in Old Testament Egypt and in the desert, and it felt so real, I was confident that the author had done a lot of research. I liked that the dialogue was easy to read with the natural conversations we would have today, yet there were times where some dialogue bumped me out of that particular world, as I would have a hard time imagining someone from that time using some of our contemporary expressions.

Destiny’s Hands was suspenseful; it kept me turning the pages past my bedtime and I finished it in two days. (I wish I’d rationed myself, to prolong the joy!) It delved into a romantic relationship, showed us the history and customs of that time and place, and made us feel the intense struggles and emotions of the main character. I’ve heard and read so often that a reader needs to empathize with a character, and this writer has skilfully enabled us to feel what he feels, at one place bringing me to tears.

I highly recommend Violet Nesdoly’s Destiny’s Hands. It is a perfect example of why I read fiction. I was inspired by this account of a true story, I was challenged and strengthened in my own faith, and on top of all that, enjoyed being immersed in a different world. I can only hope that the author is hard at work on another book!