In A LIGHT TO MY PATH, the stand-alone follow-up to CANDLE IN THE DARKNESS and FIRE IN THE NIGHT in the “Refiner’s Fire” series, Lynn Austin weaves themes of forgiveness, racial reconciliation, love, and faith together to create a compelling story of lives changed by God during the Civil War.
Austin switches points of view between two slaves: Anna, or “Kitty” as she is dubbed, a young girl who grows up as a companion to Missy Claire, and Grady, a young light-skinned slave torn from his parents at an early age. Both characters, living in the second half of the 19th century, respond to their slavery differently.
Lacking knowledge of any other way to live, Kitty, who was too young to remember her parents’ deaths at the hands of slavetrackers, numbly accepts her mistreatment at the Fuller Plantation in South Carolina as her lot in life, loyal to the mistress who looks at her as no better than an animal. Kitty’s desire to be loved is endearing, and her artistic bent adds an interesting component to her personality. The kindling of her anger over her slavery and her desire for freedom comes about only when the ones she loves are threatened.
Her opposite is Grady, a well-developed character who simmers with rage and yearns for freedom throughout the novel. Readers will resonate with Grady’s anger as they see the desperate plight of slaves separated from their families, mistreated by slave traders, and sold into grinding work on southern plantations or into New Orleans brothels. It all helps build a believable case for Grady’s rage against all white people, which eventually culminates in murder. Grady’s love/hate relationship with music, his casual flirtations, and his fear of truly loving anyone again, lest they be taken away from him, are just a few of the ways Austin fully fleshes him out as a believable character.
One of the more dynamic figures in the story is the aging mammy Delia, whose strong faith will endear her to readers. As events in the South careen into chaos, Delia tells Kitty, “I don’t waste time worrying. I pray,” then adds, “Praying ain’t about getting your own way. It’s about asking God to have his way.” Delia believes that “…the Lord is in charge.” Everything that happens to Kitty, Grady, and herself is part of His divine plan. “I do know that we can trust the Lord, even when we don’t understand why things happen the way we do,” she says. Her belief in a God who is in control and her ability to forgive becomes even more intriguing as her past gradually unfolds to Grady and Kitty.
Of all of the characters, the most disappointing is Missy, the belligerent, spoiled mistress who owns Kitty, and who comes off as a bit flat and one-dimensional. It would be nice to see her more fully developed, as her childish tirades sometimes seem over the top, especially after Kitty has her baby. Even a glimmer of occasional kindness would have added authenticity to her character.
A LIGHT TO MY PATH is Austin’s twelfth novel, and her experience in fiction shows through her careful attention to detail, vivid backdrops, and smooth dialogue between the characters. The pacing occasionally slows, especially toward the end, and one wishes the book were shorter by about 50 pages. The final scene between Grady and his father is particularly difficult to believe. Yet the plotline and characters are strong enough to keep the reader continuing to the end of the story. Fans of historical fiction with strong faith themes should find this enjoyable tale much to their liking.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 1, 2004