Jane Kirkpatrick is one of historical faith fiction's best literary prose-masters, and this first installment in a new series, A CLEARING IN THE WILD, is a welcome invitation to explore the settling of the west. This is more than a historical tale, however. Based on her research into a true story, Kirkpatrick opens up to the reader endless questions about gender roles, the values and pitfalls of community, the dangers of power and problems of blind allegiances, the troubling balance between following the courage of one's convictions and selfishness, and the riddle of how a good God can be resolved with personal tragedy and suffering.
In the 1850s in Bethel, Missouri, a Christian community seeks to live in harmony with each other yet separate from worldly things. Through first-person narrative, we discover that young 17-year-old Emma Wagner of the community is in love and ready to tie the knot with Christian Giesy, 20 years her senior and only a year younger than her father. The leader of the religious colony, Father Keil, is against the match, and his word is usually law among the group. But Emma's strong will prevails.
Emma chafes against conformity and longs to express her individuality. Her dress is plain, yet she sews a double row of ruffles into her crinoline where no one but herself and her husband can see them. (Says her new husband, who loves her independence even as it troubles him, "It's a good thing to do, when you feel overcome by the rules.") She discovers that Christian has wanderlust, and in the way of all newly married women must readjust her thoughts of her beloved. "That momentary insight changed the way I looked at him, altered how I thought he saw our marriage too. Like a woman riding on a pillion behind her husband, we traveled the same road but arrived at our destination with very different views. We had different hopes, it seemed, save that we each said out loud we wished a family."
By resorting to shading the truth, Emma wangles a spot with the Bethel Scout's exploration of the west to the coasts of Oregon and Washington. They hope to relocate the community further from the perils of too-close civilization, finding a "place of separation" as they had once done by moving from Pennsylvania to Missouri. What Emma hasn't told her husband or anyone else is that she's pregnant.
Kirkpatrick immerses her readers into the rich details of the religious colony of this period, from strudels to Schellenbaums (a Turkish bell tree) to German proverbs ("Begin to weave/God provides the thread.") The colony seeks to follow "The Diamond Rule" --- better than even the golden rule in that colonists are asked "to be in service, to treat others as we wished to be treated, and to go beyond, to help others live even better than we did." Good words for reflection. There are snippets of wisdom interwoven throughout the story that also prompt deeper thought, as when Emma's little son Andy keeps running toward a trench. ("I wondered why it is we are pulled to that which is dangerous, to places we should best leave alone.")
If you are a reader who demands lots of fast-paced action and climactic tragedies, then this is not your book. If, however, you like a thoughtful read, give Kirkpatrick's novels a try. She's won numerous awards (including the general market "Wrangler Award" from the Western Heritage Center and National Cowboy Hall of Fame). Book groups will find that there are plenty of topics for discussion in this well-crafted, multilayered novel. A sequel is already in the works, in which Emma's journey of self-discovery will continue.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011