Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Emma of Aurora
A book over 1,000 pages. An author I had never read before. A month to read it in. I was a little nervous, but it was worth a try, and thanks to a generous blogging review program, which I am very thankful for, I wouldn't be losing out if I didn't like it.
It did require some dedication, though. This much-worn and huge doorstopper has travelled with me from Michigan to Tennessee, kept me company in a van with a flat tire, and been my constant companion on Sunday afternoons. But I finished it on time, and simply for the sake of reading a big book, it was worth it to prove to myself I could still do it.
So here, I present to you my first (and probably last) acquaintance with Jane Kirkpatrick, and my impressions of Emma of Aurora.
This book combines three volumes about Emma Giesy's story, originally titled A Clearing in the Wild, A Tendering in the Storm, and A Mending at the Edge.
A true woman, who really existed, Emma Wagner is a young woman eager for marriage in her local community of Bethel, Pennsylvania. The leader of their community, Brother Keil, who serves as counselor, minister, doctor, and general decision-maker all in one, no longer encourages marriage, trying to keep young men and women single to devote their service to the colony. But Emma marries a wise and kind older man, Christian Giesy, who is a friend of her father's, and their life promises to be happy together, if Christian can ever be home for a few weeks at a time instead of constantly being out recruiting new colony members.
When the Civil War threatens to break out, and the railroad comes to town, the Bethel community determines to move out West, where land is a good price. Nine males scouts are chosen, and for some reason, Emma Wagner Giesy went with them, the only woman to accompany the expedition. They started out in 1853, and her first child was born in 1854, so she must have been a strong woman and well able to endure hardships.
A Clearing in the Wild explores young Emma's travelling along the Oregon trail with the nine scouts, establishing her family, and trying, in spite of the age gap between herself and her husband, to be a worthy helpmeet. When they choose a site for the Bethel colony to come out, they eagerly set to work, but their leader arrives and disapproves of the site, and the colony splits, with Christian and Emma choosing to stay at Willapa, and Keil's followers moving on to Oregon.
A Tendering in the Storm continues Emma's journey with the death of her husband by drowning, and her marriage to Jack Giesy, an abusive husband. Though she never liked Brother Kiel, and determined not to leave the Willapa colony that she and her husband had worked so hard for, Emma's finds that Brother Keil's Aurora colony holds her only promise of refuge for herself and her children from her second husband.
A Mending at the Edge finishes Emma's journey. She faces separation from her sons so that they can be properly brought up with male influence in their lives, due to the lack of a father figure, and Emma's struggles to develop a servant's heart for the colony, and balance individual value with submission to others.
Emma, as the main character, deserves the first section of my thoughts here. She's not a main character who gives me a warm and fuzzy relatable feeling--flawed and stubborn most of the time, it's other people's love for her that I loved, not her for her own sake. Christian Geisy, her husband, was a brave and steadfast Christian man, and when he drowned, I said goodbye to my favorite character. He was what Emma needed, and when he died, she lost her compass.
Some things have been fictionalized for the purposes of the story; whether Emma was as strong-willed as she appears in the book, I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect there might have been an inkling, if not of such outright feminism, at least of a sturdy nature. For the purposes of my thoughts, however, I'll stick to how she was portrayed in the book, whether or not that was actually the case in real life. Her constant manipulation in the first book was disturbing, and I was constantly starring feministic thoughts and misjudgements on her part that could have been avoided if she had been willing to embrace a biblical role of womanhood.
Even though she was flawed, however, I chose to keep reading, because I know that a character, especially in a trilogy, is supposed to undergo a character arc of changed attitudes. Book 2 showed me that other characters recognized her flaws just as much as I did; Emma, ironically, was the only one blind to them. I thought that showed good promise for future improvement, and at the end of book two I was greatly relieved and hopeful, for it looked like she would get it. Something happened towards the middle of Book 3, however, and I'm not sure quite what it was; but Emma went back to her manipulating and feministic ways, all in the name of improvement and individuality, seeming to think she had learned her lesson. She made poor choices, and for a while the author was excellent at portraying the grief and punishment that those poor choices led to. But in Book 3, the aftermath that continued through the years seemed to be passed off in the name of 'trials' rather than a result of Emma's continuing poor attitude.
It is grievous, when a character shows genuine signs of growth, to have them change and slide all the way back to where they began, and this was a hard book to finish. I was hoping that it would be a good trilogy on the whole, though one that I could only recommend to readers willing to read all of it, to draw the proper conclusions about Emma's attitude. But now I can't even do that, for the arc doubled back on itself, and the reader is left with a character who is older, somewhat wiser, but just as blind in a few key areas that she was at the beginning.
The one good lesson that this story taught was of community, and reaching out to help one another. Emma was so afraid of being under obligations to others that she often shut out relationships, and hurt people who wanted to reach out to her. It's good to ask other people to help bear our burdens for us, and very strongly illustrated in her story is the blessing of help given and help received, not only by immediate family, though that is a key theme, but also by church and friends as well, even when it requires being personal and vulnerable.
Emma Geisy was not of the Amish or Mennonite persuasion, but she and her family did live in a central community that focused on sharing common money and resources, working for the good of each other. I never knew fully what the community believed. It seemed to be this Christian utopia society, and what it stood for is unclear, besides the focus of sharing money and work for the good of all, and following the leadership of Wilhelm Keil. Brother Kiel's views on preventing marriage, Emma's claim of her second husband abusing her, and the Willapa colony split, are all documented facts, and Jane Kirkpatrick seemed to do a good job with working with the historical records and the historical society, as well as some of Emma's descendants, to give an accurate picture of the colony.
The women's house church in book 3 could have been a beautiful picture of older women discipling younger women, but it was instead a group of women gathering together at Emma's instigation to have their own independent spiritual discussions. There's nothing wrong with women having spiritual discussions together over sewing and trading recipes; but the underlying motivation of doing so without any leaders around to guide is hardly a biblical or beneficial idea.
Scripture was seriously misapplied in multiple places in book 3. In fact, in the majority of places where it was quoted, it was taken out of context. You can't take only one verse of Scripture and base your whole theology on it, particularly when it's supporting unbiblical attitudes. A verse must be taken with it's surrounding meaning, not merely taking on an individual basis to excuse actions that would otherwise be inexcusable.
Due to plot elements of pregnancy and marriage, told from a first person woman's perspective, as well as disturbing feministic attitudes on Emma's part, this is a book for mature readers, preferably female, who are able to sift out the right from wrong. But at this point, though it was not entirely devoid of benefit, as I used the time to pinpoint her feministic attitudes, and see if any of them had crept into my own life, I wouldn't recommend it. You can find better books to spend your time on, and the history isn't so overwhelmingly incorporated that this book is worth it for the history's sake.
I respect the amount of work Jane Kirkpatrick put into crafting this story; her careful detail with food and people and colony, the life of the band and church, and the regular housekeeping events are lovingly and carefully written. Sometimes she would describe little family habits and interactions and they made me smile, because I would never think of writing such things down, but they made the people so real, and I kept thinking "that's just like someone in our family does!" I enjoyed those bits, and it inspired me to develop some more of that detail in future stories I hope to write. But Emma Wagner Giesy is not a good role model, and her story is a heavy one, certainly not for relaxation or entertainment, with a conclusion far from satisfactory.
So all in all, my first exploration into Jane Kirkpatrick will probably be my last. But it was worth a try, and I'm not out much in time for it. For more information about Jane Kirkpatrick, check out her author's website. And for more information about Emma of Aurora, including a link to the first chapter and other reviews, click here.
I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. A favorable opinion was not required, and I have given my honest thoughts regarding this work.