Sunday, May 17, 2009

96 (2009 #21). A Flickering Light

by Jane Kirkpatrick

I hesitated before requesting this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The premise of the book – the story of a 15-year-old female photographer’s assistant in 1907 Winona, Minnesota, based on the life of the author’s grandmother – was intriguing. My husband is an excellent photographer; I consider myself a pretty good one, and we have everything we need (except the energy!) to set up a darkroom in our laundry room. But the book was published by a self-described “evangelical Christian” press, so I was a bit leery. I figured the lack of Christian fiction in my LibraryThing account would probably mean I wouldn’t get the book anyway. I guess the prevalence of historical fiction and biographical novels tipped LibraryThing’s algorithm my way.

On the bright side, I am pleased to report that the story does not push Christian themes on its readers. The main character, Jessie Gaebele, and her family are definitely conservative Christians – they don’t dance or drink or want to associate with people who do, for example. Jessie fights her attraction to her married boss, the older photographer FJ Bauer. Yet Jessie is spunky enough to pursue a profession at a time when few women did, in a field even fewer females occupied. She often “slants truth” with lies of omission, when she knows her thoughts or actions will disappoint her parents.

Jessie, her family, the Bauers, and a number of other characters are based on real people. The author includes a map of Winona from the early 1900s and locates the homes and businesses of these real people on it. Even better, the book includes five photographs taken of or by the real Jessie, from her glass negatives. According to the author’s blog, “My grandmother is the narrator for these photographs but the rest of the story is told in third person through her eyes, her employer's eyes and the eyes of his wife.”

The only complaint I have about the book, and the reason I only give it 4.5 stars, is that there could have been more information about photographic methods and processes of the era. For example, Bauer suffers from recurring mercury poisoning, which is never really explained. In those days, apparently mercuric chloride (formerly called corrosive sublimate, perchloride, or bichloride of mercury) was used as a bleaching agent to increase density or contrast (called intensification) in negatives, according to a reprint of the 1911 edition of Cassell's Cyclopaedia of Photography.

All in all, I really liked this book. I didn’t feel like the author or her characters were trying to be preachy or shove their faith down my throat. In an interview, the author says “there is a sequel to A Flickering Light called An Absence so Great that will be out next April and will finish my grandmother’s story as far as I decided to take it.” In her blog, she says this book will again include actual photographs by/of Jessie.

A Flickering Light was well-written and fascinating. It can be enjoyed by fans of Christian and inspirational fiction as well as fans of historical fiction such as myself. I look forward to the sequel (even though, based on some hints in this book and a little research, I think I know some of what happens).

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