Fans of bestselling author Francine Rivers will be delighted to hear that, after a seven-year hiatus since her last full-length book, she's releasing the first of an exciting two-volume series about a history that is deeply personal to her. HER MOTHER'S HOPE focuses on multiple generations of Rivers's family, spanning two continents and encompassing both World Wars.
Book one starts with Marta Schneider (Rivers's grandmother) telling of her childhood in Switzerland in the early 1900s. Marta's travels take her from the Swiss city where she was born on a lone voyage across the Swiss countryside and then to France, England, Canada, and lastly the United States. Midway through, the torch is passed to Marta's daughter, Hildemara Rose (Hildie), whose youth is split between their family farms in Canada and then California. But this story is not limited to these two women, as through them we learn about others and the times and places where they lived. A tale of two extraordinary people thus becomes a multi-generational saga that transcends the boundaries of the biography to become a true period novel or even a classic war saga.
Marta's story begins in the year 1901 as she recounts her thoughts about her daily existence. Her father runs a small tailoring shop in Steffisburg, Switzerland, where he requires long hours of labor both from Marta and her mother. The two work as hand seamstresses, their labor mandatory for the survival of the family. They live in poverty while Marta's father acts as a slave driver, cruelly spurring them on to work and singling Marta out. Of his three children, she's the one with no rights, no freedom and no prospects. Despite her brilliant mind and a passionate desire to finish school, Marta is forcefully withdrawn at the age 12 so her father can hire her out to serve them.
Marta endures regular beatings as a result of standing up to her father. Her mother is a mousy creature whose poor health leaves her with little ability to pick up the slack for Marta. And though she is weak-minded and does nothing to prevent the violence, Marta's mother does have good qualities: a kind disposition as well as a strong faith that grounds them all. She is one of the few who makes Marta's life remotely livable. Surprisingly, she also shows love for her husband in spite of the fact that he doesn't love any of them in return.
Once it's clear that his tailoring shop isn't bringing in enough income, Marta's father becomes fixated on using Marta permanently. He sends her away as an innocent young teenager to "housekeeping school" in nearby Bern, where she works even harder than she did at home. This program is of course just a scam, a hotel that charges for "training" and produces a certificate in exchange for free labor. While her family spends perfectly good money forcing her to work, Marta's father seems to have made his point that she's destined to be their indentured servant.
Marta's mother eventually convinces her to escape, a frightening and relieving idea for Marta. With little money, she flees alone into the wider world, still a teenager but armed with her drive and her wits. And she has her faith, the strong belief that God will be there for her. Her mother's guidance has helped ground this, and Marta really tries to believe as her mother does that God has a plan for each person. Ultimately, this is what keeps her sane and gives her hope that there's a better life out there.
Marta's dreams of owning her own hotel drive her from one city to the next and finally to Montreal, where she opens up her own boarding house. Here, she meets a German engineer who changes her life and, after a short courtship, marries him. She's happier than she's ever been, but this perfect picture is fleeting too. Niclas's nominal job prospects force him to leave; he's unwilling to let his wife support him and so seeks work elsewhere, pursuing a risky sharecropping prospect out on barren farmland. At first, Marta chooses not to follow, but her own happiness compels her to finally go after him. They remain together for the rest of their lives after this and eventually have several daughters and a son. Here is where Hildie's story begins: on the Canadian frontier where her parents try to scrape out a living.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it isn't condemning of human flaws or of people who are less than perfect. Rivers doesn't always paint a pretty picture and openly shows each of her characters’ anger, cruelty and frustration --- along with their love, faith and goodness. Thus she shows us that people are shaped as much by their pain and human flaws as they are by the joys in life. She also allows us to see the entire life cycle, including lovemaking (quite discretely), the birthing of babies, and the process of dying. Through this, the full value of a life begins to emerge, giving significant meaning to the religious principles Rivers means to reinforce. There is also excellent history at work here that provides great interest, along with top-notch writing and storytelling. This makes HER MOTHER'S HOPE quite the saga and an exceptional work of historical fiction.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on November 13, 2011