A Light in the Wilderness shows again that there are wonderful stories of courage, determination, and strength to be found in the files of our country's many museums and archives. And Jane Kirkpatrick has made a successful writing career discovering and retelling the mostly unknown stories of some of those women. In an interview that follows the book, Kirkpatrick talks about the process of writing historical fiction, Research gives her the who, what, where, and when facts.Then she "explore(s) the why and how of their lives." She also says she likes to choose women who would mostly be seen as "ordinary" so that we, the readers, can put ourselves into their lives, considering, as we read, what we would do in similar circumstances. Choosing just how many facts to include in her historical fiction is a balancing act; she says readers can be overwhelmed and bored with too many facts, but need enough to capture an authenticity of the time period. I wholeheartedly concur with her philosophy on historical fiction. I've read some that is entirely too fluffy and captures nothing of the true time period or the people; I've also read some recently so laden with facts that the essence of the main character is never given a chance to breathe. When I see that Kirkpatrick has written another book, I know I will not be disappointed and that I will learn about another fascinating woman from the past.
In A Light in the Wilderness that woman is Letitia Carson, a free black woman who travels to Oregon with her common law husband in the 1840's. Knowing that their interracial marriage would not be legally recognized and always fearing that her "free' papers would not be honored in the new territory, Letitia convinced her husband to enter into a contract saying she was paid for her "work" with money, property, and livestock. That way she felt she would be protected if he would die. When he does die almost a decade after arriving in Oregon all his belongings and properties are legally seized as they determine who should inherit. Letitia brings suit against the estate, the first black woman to do so, and the first black woman to have a contract recognized. Kirkpatrick has done a superb job of filling in those "how" and "why" questions about Letitia and her Irish immigrant husband Davey, basing her narrative on a myriad of documents and sources. Key to the story are the friendships she made with Nancy, one of the white settlers whose babies she helped deliver and Betsy, a Kalapuya Indian who lived on what would be Davey Carson's homestead, all well documented. What emerges is a story of a unique marriage and a strong woman who knew the world was against her, but never lost sight of her desire to provide for herself and her children. I don't if Jane's inclusion of Charity the cow is historical or not, but it was one of those special details that makes her writing alive with warmth and believability Jane Kirkpatrick has included historical background about Letitia on her website and she writes more about why she was called to write this book. I will continue to read Kirkpatrick's books. I have never been disappointed. I only wish I could hear her speak about all her works. She has given us a treasure trove of stories from the past..
I received an ecopy of this title from Netgalley for review purposes.