A Light in the Storm

The only reason I’ve waited so long to review this book is because honestly? I hated it.

A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, Fenwick Island, Delaware, 1860, Karen Hesse, 1999.

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It’s an interesting story, I suppose. Delaware has got to be one of the most boring states in America, so its’s nice that they got thrown a bone of a DA book. Unfortunately, it’s boring and also irritating. This is a classic “I’m not like other girls!” book, which is one of the bugaboos that I harp on most frequently. For some reason I was absolutely obsessed with lighthouses as a kid, so I should have been all over this book, but even as a kid I found it vaguely irritating.

Amelia’s father is the lighthouse keeper on their island, so they live an isolated life from everyone else in town, and it’s abundantly obvious that her parents do not have a good marriage. Her mother is miserable on the island, while her father and Amelia both love it out there. And more importantly, her mother is ardently for slavery, while Amelia and her father are against it. So already the house is tense.

Amelia, who is almost sixteen, helps teach at the schoolhouse in town during the morning, and helps keep the lighthouse watch in the afternoon and evening. Everyone else in the town is equally divided on the question of slavery, which leaves her feeling pretty lonely even when she is able to get off the island. She loses one of her friends, William, when he falls through the ice while ice skating, because there is absolutely nothing good going on at any point in this book, ever.

One of the interesting things about this book (which probably isn’t quite enough to bump it into the “I liked it” category for me) is the fact that it depicts a genuinely unhappy marriage between Amelia’s parents. I can’t recall another Dear America book that does so—in Christmas After All Minnie’s father leaves the family for a brief time, but it’s not due to marital strife, and he comes back with bucketloads of cash, so it all works out. This one seems like a much more classic example of a couple who don’t get along and divorce was a terrible thing, so they’re just going to suffer and be miserable. Forever. It’s hard to read, definitely, especially for kids who grew up in troubled homes, but it’s a pleasant change in terms of what YA historical books are often focused on!

Amelia writes about how Lincoln is coming to Washington to take office (January 1861), and how she doesn’t understand how he’s going to knit the country together when states have already seceded and Jefferson Davis has been elected as their president. This entire book is a long metaphor for America—Amelia’s father is the abolitionist North and her mother the secessionist South and Amelia is caught in the middle, trying to keep them together.

Amelia’s mother hates being on the island—she suffers from arthritis and migraines and resents her husband for taking them all the way there—but Amelia loves it out there and adores working on the light. So Amelia is torn between her parents again. So instead she spends time with her friend Daniel, who keeps saying he’ll be off to war as soon as war is declared, which happens in April. Amelia worries that her father will go to war, since they absolutely can’t get by without him.

They begin to hear about slave insurrections and rumours that slaves are fleeing north in huge numbers, causing mass disruption everywhere. Daniel leaves for training, and it seems like everyone in Delaware is fiercely and violently opposed to each other. In July, the other lighthouse keeper leaves, and a new one comes along with his wife and five children. He decides that he’ll throw a flag-raising party on the island, where they’ll put a big flagpole up and raise a Union flag, and invite everyone in the town. No one comes. Not even Amelia’s mother comes to the party which is practically in her backyard. Her mother is continually getting worse and worse, and Amelia’s grandmother comes to the island to help look after her, and Amelia finds herself growing closer and closer to the new keeper’s family—since they’re at the very least not morose and depressed all the god-damned time over everything. Eventually her mother grows sick enough that she goes back to the mainland, and Amelia is left there alone with her father and the other keeper, Hale, and his family.

By September, Amelia is named an official assistant lighthouse keeper, which comes with a small salary. But everyone is acting more and more strangely—her uncle’s shop in town is attacked and the glass smashed; her mother is doing much better and is much happier on the mainland; her father grows more and more depressed and periodically disappears for hours and hours almost every day.  She learns, from her uncle, that he has given her mother divorce papers, and asks Amelia what she wants—and she says that she just wants to stay at the light forever and ever as long as she lives.

That’s pretty much it. In the epilogue, Amelia’s father stays at the light until he suffers a stroke two years later, and her mother dies in 1862 after a seizure. Amelia takes over for her father as assistant keeper in 1863, and Daniel returns from the war and marries her, but they spend very little time together. Daniel goes west to work on the transcontinental railroad and dies in 1913, while Amelia is given her own lighthouse off the coast of Maine in 1869, saves twenty-two lives, receives many awards, and dies in her sleep in 1940 at the age of ninety-five.

Rating: C-. It’s not bad. Karen Hesse is a lovely writer—everything she puts out is very poetic and well-written, which is great. But the story itself just does nothing for me. I suppose it’s interesting to learn about lighthouses and how they were kept, but I just didn’t find myself caring about any of the characters, which is awful. It didn’t connect. I wonder if it’s the choice of author for the series—Hesse really shines more as a stand-alone author in a type of novel that allows her style to speak for itself, and I don’t know if a diary-style novel is the right choice for that. It’s very beautifully written and has some great points, but it’s not enough for me to really enjoy it. Which is why it’s taken me so long to get around to it!

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