Based on the life of a real black woman who followed the Oregon Trail, A Light in the Wilderness by Jane Kirkpatrick is a tale of injustice and the pursuit of freedom. Letitia Carson treasures her freedom papers above all else; though many still treat her as a slave, she knows she is a free human being. As she grows to trust Davey Carson, an Irish immigrant, and his kind neighbors, the Hawkins', she agrees to leave Missouri and its hate of blacks for far-off Oregon. Sometimes her friendship with Nancy Hawkins is all that holds Letitia together, and vice versa, as they travel the rough and dangerous trail to a new life. Once there, an old Indian woman from a dying tribe provides more comfort as she and Davey eke out a living in this free land. But as a black woman, will she ever truly be free?
As with other works by the author, this one follows closely to history, even as far as the crazy laws governing the territories, the states, and even the country. Blacks could not legally marry whites, they could not testify against a white, and they could not, for a time, even legally live in the Oregon territory. It is encouraging to read about a real woman who challenged these laws, who stood up for her rights as a human being long before the civil rights movement.
One thing I've found about Kirkpatrick's writing is that the story isn't safe - she writes history how it happened, not how I wish it would be. Death, mistreatment, injustice - they are not picky about whom they terrorize; in reality, sometimes the wrong people die. So when I began reading this book, I truly could not guess where it was going or who would live and who would die - only that it would follow Letitia in her pursuit of true freedom.
While this is not a romance-heavy story, it is a good example of a real marriage. Like any couple, Letitia and Davey have their ups and downs, with different ideas of how a marriage should work - how money should be spent, how to communicate, how to survive disappointment. They really have to work at it. Though they commit to each other, the lack of legal binding means there is always that faint fear that the other might give up and leave. I could see similarities between Letitia and friends today who, though they live with a boyfriend, lack the legal binding of marriage to secure them the rights of a married couple - however strongly committed, there is a lack of security there that the legally wed do not have.
A detailed account of the Oregon Trail as well as pre-Civil War treatment of free blacks, this book is a fascinating journey through history. For anyone who enjoys fiction based on real people and events, I highly recommend this novel.
Thank you Revell for providing a free book for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.
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