Monday, September 23, 2013

Lori Benton's "Burning Sky" - a beautiful novel of restoration


In her debut novel Burning Sky, Lori Benton writes a sweeping tale of restoration after the American Revolution.  With her Mohawk family dead, white captive Burning Sky leaves the life she has known these past twelve years and makes her way back to the home of her white family, taking back her birth name: Wilhelmina Obenchain.  At the border of her father's land, she finds an unconscious man with a broken arm - the botanist and doctor Neil MacGregor - and she drags him with her to the abandoned farm that her family had once owned.  Because her parents were suspected Tories when they disappeared during the Revolution, their land was confiscated and has now come up for auction, though Willa intends to prove her parents were loyal to the Patriots and save it.  Finding herself pulled many ways, Willa seeks the truth of what happened to her parents, while her clan brother Joseph Tames-His-Horse encourages her to return with him to the Mohawk nation, and Neil plants himself firmly in her life, slowly thawing her frozen heart.

It is with good reason this novel has received three (yes, not one, but three) Christy Awards: for Best Historical, Best First Novel, and Book of the Year (2014). Believe me - it deserves all three!

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Without sounding like a textbook, Benton does an excellent job incorporating the history of upstate New York into the novel.  At the border of British Canada, many villages suffered raids by marauding British and their Iroquois allies even after the war was officially won.  While I was taught in school about Paul Revere and Boston Tea Party, I knew nothing of the civil war being fought amongst the Iroquois nations in the northeast.  Although the six Iroquois nations had been united for centuries, most of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Patriots in the Revolution, while the rest joined the British.  While it is not a main focus of the novel, Benton brings out the sorrow of the People who were forced to fight against their brothers in a war that ultimately led to the loss of their homeland for all six nations. 

With all their humanity - their flaws, failings, attributes, and accomplishments - Benton's characters feel very real; none is perfect, but none is wholly evil either. Even Richard, as contemptible as he is, was once a loving young man, and I can pity the vicious man that emerged from war. Joseph Tames-His-Horse, the Colonel, Anni, Goodenough - all are decent people, friends to Willa, but like real people, they each have their faults and blind spots.

I really like Neil; he is not the tallest or the strongest or maybe even the best looking man in Willa's acquaintance, and since his near scalping, he can no longer even read or write, but what he lacks physically he more than makes up for spiritually.  Granted, he is not perfect - he still questions God and disobeys His instruction, but he learns.  He repents.  He makes changes.  It says much of his character when Willa realizes that "of the two men most concerned with their lives, the man the children had wanted to defend them wasn't the warrior, Joseph, but the healer, Neil.  As [did she]" (p324).  Of all his good qualities, Neil's ability to be content is most impressive; as a doctor, scholar, and scientist, words have been his world, and to lose the ability to read and write could throw any person into depression and bitterness, but he continually - though imperfectly - practices being content in the circumstances God has allowed to befall him.  My life is a breeze in comparison, but I still have much to learn from him!

More than anything, this is a novel of healing and restoration.  So many of the characters are broken inside, hurting, and afraid.  Although Willa trusts in God, she is afraid to let others into her heart, for fear of losing one more person she loves.  After being stolen from her birth family at fourteen, she has also lost her Mohawk husband to war and her children to smallpox.  However, in spite of the loss of two families, God restores her heart and provides her with a motley party that becomes her new family. 

After growing up on Lois Lenski's Indian Captive and Elizabeth George Speare's Calico Captive, both about young women as they grow up in captivity, it was good to read about what happens when the captive returns to her people, the changes in her, and the whites' attitudes towards her.  Benton  has written a beautiful, in-depth novel that I highly recommend.  5 out of 5 stars!

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.  All  opinions expressed are my own.

Benton's Pathfinders series, The Woods Edge and A Flight of Arrows are also connected lightly to Burning Sky, and I highly recommend reading them also! 

Recommended other novels on a similar vein: Courting Morrow Little and The Frontiersman's Daughter by Laura Frantz; Ghost Fox by James A. Houston (non-christian)

3 comments:

  1. THANK YOU for this thoughtful, insightful, and lovely review, Rachael. How encouraging and blessing!

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  2. PS: I'm working on a blog post about Neil for later today or tomorrow. I'd love to link back to you here and quote a few of your lines about Neil.

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    1. Sure thing! I'll be sure to check your blog, then!

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