Friday, May 1, 2009

Historic Fact and Fiction

When I was a teenager, I loved reading historical fiction. Books that took me to another place in time. I particularly remember the books of Anya Seton and Taylor Caldwell and their depictions of women characters during earlier historical periods. So I readily agreed to participate in author Jane Kirkpatrick's "Duet" blog tour scheduled for this week.

A Flickering Light is a fascinating story of Jessie Anne Gaebele who is determined to become a photographer in a small Minnesota town at the turn of the century. When we first meet Jessie, she is in her mid-teens and both she and her older sister have been sent out to work to help support their close-knit family.

Jessie is a determined young woman and willing to work hard for what she wants. Fascinated by the images she sees in the landscape around her, she finds a job as an assistant to a portrait photographer. Joined by her friend Voe, Jessie spends the next several years learning everything she can about portrait photography. At several points during these years, Jessie's boss, F.J. Bauer, becomes deathly ill from mercury poisoning as a result of handling too many photo chemicals. During these times, Jessie and Voe run the photography studio giving Jessie the opportunity to actively make portraits herself. She also learns valuable skills in supervising the administrative tasks of the business as well.

The primary sub-plot is the growing attraction between Jessie and her very married older boss F.J. While this part of the plot is predictable, Kirkpatrick's writing keeps it as fresh and new as these unwelcome feelings are to Jessie. As Jessie matures throughout the story from ages 15-18, her development as a young woman is both believable and poignant. Although Winona, Minnesota is an established town, the story has a bit of the frontier freshness when our towns were more open than they are now.

This coming-of-age story is well worth reading to learn about what life was like for one family in this time and place of our history and also to admire one girl's determination to break free from established conventions and "acceptable" behavior for young ladies.

Paired with A Flickering Light in this "duet" blog tour is another book by Jane Kirkpatrick that is a historical recounting of a real frontier community in Aurora, Oregon in the mid-1850s. Some of the most fascinating chapters of our country's history revolve around the various religious groups who pulled away from society to establish utopian communities, sharing a life together that was built around particular sets of religious beliefs and hard work.

Aurora, An American Experience in Quilt, Community, and Craft benefits immensely from plentiful primary sources as many of the documents, photos, crafts, tools, and stories of the Aurora community have been preserved over time. Kirkpatrick pulls all of things together to write an engaging biography of the founding and history of the Aurora community.

It is a beautifully printed hard-bound book that is chock full of period photographs, contemporary photographs of still-existing buildings, quilts, and tools. Many letters, journals, and other historical documents have been preserved and Kirkpatrick brings these people and their stories to life.

As with many of these communities, the founder William Keil was charismatic and had a strong vision for what the community could be. Kirkpatrick tells the Aurora story with compassionate insight and with great respect. The Aurora colony was more successful than most, but eventually it began to disintegrate. The fact that their story has been preserved for more than 150 years is a testament to their success and their influence on the community in which they lived.

Anyone interested in history and particularly utopian communities would find Aurora an interesting read.

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