Faith of Our Fathers, Volume 1: A House Divided by N. C. Allen
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
One of the hottest books in LDS bookstores this season is A House Divided, the opening book in the Faith of Our Fathers series. Recent years have seen the rising success of historical fiction series in the LDS fiction market, but Faith of Our Fathers by N. C. Allen, a series on the U.S. Civil war, is unique among those popular blockbusters for its diverse approach to a segment of U.S. history most historians pass by as having had little impact on the people of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It is also the first major series of this magnitude written by a woman. N. C. Allen also writes under the name of Nancy Campbell Allen.
Allen covers the story from the vantage point of six different families from six different geographical areas; a powerful Northern family, a prominent Southern family with a son who has left the family to join the Church, a slave family, a bayou family, an Ohio farm family, and a New York Irish immigrant family. The viewpoints are as diverse as the geographic settings. The male and female points of view are almost evenly divided and the addition of the slaves’ points of view, the farm family, the immigrants, and the isolationist view of the Mormons building a separate empire in the West gives a broader picture of a period of American history that nearly tore the nation apart and left no segment of the population unscathed.
Allen introduces characters at such a rapid rate in this first book, it becomes difficult to keep the various storylines straight. It’s almost like reading a Tom Clancy novel to try to figure out where the various plots and characters will intersect. Though a novel this ambitious requires a lot of information being introduced in the first volume, I would have liked to get to know each major player better before moving on to the next.
Historians have long since concluded that there was no single reason for the U.S. Civil war, and Allen recognizes the complex economic and political reasons behind the conflict, but chooses to highlight race as the major motivating factor behind the war. In doing so, she doesn’t turn a completely blind eye to the greed and power motives of the era.
A Clutch of Characters
The prologue opens the story with Ben Birmingham’s failed attempt to free a group of family slaves. Even more chilling than the punishment meted out to the slaves who attempted to run away, is the attitude behind the punishment. The slaves are punished to set an example, then sent right back to their previous positions on the plantation and expected to behave as though nothing had happened. Ben, the oldest son in the plantation owner’s family, is kept under close observation, forbidden contact with his black valet, and is under constant suspicion from his family and neighbors. The slaves are considered naughty, but the white son of the plantation owner has jeopardized a way of life. For that he is ostracized from Southern society and from his family, especially his mother to whom the plantation is her life. Sarah owns the plantation, where her word is law, and her spineless, but affable husband, Jeffrey, has no voice. There are four other children in the family, besides Ben, who play significant roles.
In the first chapter we meet the Boston Birmingham family, ostensibly led by Jeffrey’s brother, James, though his abolitionist wife, Elizabeth, sets the tone for most of their family’s attitude toward the slavery issue. The two Birmingham men are twins and both are married to strong-willed women, though the Boston gentleman certainly fared better than his Southern brother in the marriage sweeps.
The first of the Boston Birminghams we meet is a young female journalist, Anne, who masquerades as a boy to get the news for her popular, but anonymously written newspaper column. Her pursuit of her chosen career leads her to enlist in the army of the North as a man. She is not the only strong-willed, independent member of her family. She has three brothers and a sister who develop their own priorities.
The Birmingham slaves are led by Ruth, who is the head house servant and one of the slaves severely whipped when Ben attempted to free her. She is also the grandmother of two young girls. The ‘family’ also includes Ben’s valet, Joshua, who has been demoted to a stable hand. He is also the biological brother to the older granddaughter. Freedom is their overriding dream.
In New Orleans Jean-Pierre Brissot owns and serves as editor of a newspaper. When he writes an editorial from his heart which he has no intention of publishing, it is lost, then found by some of the South’s most rabid secessionists. He is viciously attacked and left in a coma. In an attempt to save his life medically and protect him from further attacks, his wife, Jenny, arranges passage for him and herself to Boston. This leaves their twenty-three year old daughter, who sympathizes with the North, alone in New Orleans.
Fresh from Ireland, the O’Shea family finds themselves victims of their own share of bigotry and discrimination. The father, Gavin has a great love for his adopted country, and would enlist in the army if he were young and fit. His son, Daniel, doesn’t feel he owes America anything.
The Gunderson family of Ohio seem to have little reason to get involved in the conflict, being neither Southerners nor having any connection with the shipping and manufacturing of the North. They are farmers struggling with the massive work load of running two farms. Per , the father, pushes himself to do his work in spite of an injury to his leg which never properly heals. His wife, Amanda, believes anything, even her husband’s disability, can somehow be overcome, if she works hard enough. Their son, Ivor, is more pessimistic since his wife abandoned him and their infant daughter, leaving him bitter and unable to trust another woman. He is determined to raise his daughter with only his mother’s help and to ease his father’s burden. Still he longs to join the military unit leaving Ohio, and his parents encourage him to leave his daughter with them while he joins the men marching off to preserve the union. He leaves, expecting a brief military action that will keep him from his farm no more than a few months.
A House Divided introduces the reader to the ugliness that was slavery in a land that prided itself upon the establishment of freedom and a commitment to individual liberty. Allen astutely points out that it wasn’t just a few Southern plantation owners who grew wealthy from slave labor. Much of the North’s wealth could be traced back to the same laborers who provided the cotton for Northern mills and filled the holds of Northern ships. She also addresses in a minor way the political maneuvering for power that played a key role in the hostility between differing factions throughout the country.
This story begins to take shape as our young country sees its men and women begin to choose sides in the conflict to come. Allen takes us in this first volume from the secession of South Carolina in late 1860 to the battlefields of Virginia in December of 1861 and from the idealistic notion of causes, heroism, and victory to the reality of fear, shivering in the cold, and seeing men bleed out their lives in the oozing mud of winter.
Allen does a commendable job of creating characters the reader can care about and in introducing a background for her characters that brings the 1860’s to life. She uses a storytelling style that blends the smaller stories of each character’s life into a broader story that encompasses the Civil War years. Civil War aficionados may find fault with some of the liberties she took in a few instances with places and dates, but for the most part the events portrayed are historically accurate.
The cover and a section of photographs at the back of the book, shot from Civil War reenactments, are interesting and add detail to the book. Each chapter begins with a significant quote taken from the speeches and diaries of various people of the Civil War era. A couple of the quotes Allen uses came from Brigham Young, some from Lincoln, and others from both ordinary people and well-known historical figures, both black and white. The quotes not only sum up the events of the particular chapter, but give rise to serious thought concerning the issues of that day which still have not been completely resolved in our day.
There are several stylistic issues that bothered me in this book which have nothing to do with the story or how well it is written, though they were distractions to me. Style manuals I am familiar with place the name of the person being quoted flush right at the bottom of the quote rather than indented left. Also, there is no need for a comma when the old English style of stating a date is used such as in 26 January 1861.
Perhaps the point that impresses me most with this book is the way Allen sees inspiration, the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit, or if you will, the Light of Christ, working in the hearts and minds of those people who took a stand against evil both in the North and the South. It is a book destined to take its place as one of the most readable historical novels published for the LDS market. It is not only a thought-provoking story, but a spiritual experience.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.