In the opening pages of FIRST DAWN, readers meet Jarena Harban, who, along with her family, is taking the adventure of a lifetime. A few years after the end of the Civil War, life in Georgetown, Kentucky wasn't easy but was familiar to the Harban family. As a former slave turned sharecropper, Ezekiel Harban meets William R. Hill and purchases a plot of land in Kansas. The simple purchase changes everything for this family. Ezekiel and his three daughters --- Jarena, Grace and Truth --- pack their belongings and move to the town of Nicodemus, Kansas.
As this small group of travelers rides the train toward their new home, they have high expectations about the promised town and their plots of land. Then a guide takes the group in some wagons with their possessions to reach the town. Imagine the surprise on their faces when they arrive on the plains of Kansas full of hope yet find nothing. The buildings are "forthcoming" and any shops and supplies are miles from their land. The expectations of these African Americans are replaced with a determination to make a new life of freedom.
As Judith Miller writes in one of the opening chapters:
And Jarena's father drank up the information like a man dying of thirst. Her father was one of the first in line to hand over his life savings in exchange for four train tickets and a piece of paper. The paper was a deed declaring that he owned a piece of land in what he constantly reminded her was the freest and friendliest state for coloreds to settle: John Brown's former stomping grounds --- Kansas.
Jarena gave her father a sidelong glance. "What are you going to do if Nicodemus isn't everything you expect?"
"You gotta have faith, gal. You's too young to always be lookin' fer the worst in things. Trust the good Lord. We's on the right path."
"We'll see, Pappy. We'll see."
As you can see from the dialogue, it's told in the dialect of these former sharecroppers from Kentucky. Almost like reading Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN, the experience is jarring at first until readers hook into the cadence and rhythm. But in the blink of an eye, that feeling soon disappears.
During the story, Jarena becomes more than a caretaker for her family and discovers a romantic attraction to a young man named Thomas Grayson, who has joined the community. When Jarena's boyfriend from Kentucky, Charles Frances, arrives in Nicodemus, the story has some built-in tension between the characters.
Beyond this story of the settlers of Nicodemus, Judith Miller starts a second strand in the storytelling involving the family of Dr. Samuel Boyle. Also living in Georgetown, Kentucky, Dr. Boyle is fed up with the racial prejudice in the south. When he meets William R. Hill, he also purchases land in Hill City, Kansas, or the sister city for Nicodemus. With unhappy feelings from his wife, high society daughter and rebellious son, Dr. Boyle uproots his family and moves them west.
For a majority of the story, the lives of these two families intersect. Dr. Boyle hires Truth Harban to help with the domestic chores in their household as a live-in maid. Periodically Dr. Boyle goes to Nicodemus and treats the medical needs of this nearby community.
Part of the elegance and beauty of historical fiction is how it transports the reader to another time period. Judith Miller has done a masterful job of capturing the mood, dialogue and setting of this period of history on the plains of Kansas. The rich characterizations and moving dialogue combine with a fascinating story of changed lives with a constant reliance on faith and trust in God. This combination provides the reader with a remarkable reading experience and something highly recommended.
Reviewed by W. Terry Whalin on July 1, 2005