Book Review: Keturah by Lisa Tawn Bergren {Spoiler Alert}

Keturah by Lisa T. BergrenLast week I finished reading Keturah by Lisa T. Bergren, the first in a three-book series called the Sugar Baron’s Daughters. The historical novel follows three sisters as they journey across the ocean in the late 18th century from England to the West Indies and attempt the impossible: rescuing their family’s fledgling sugar farm as women in a man’s world, and an untamed one at that. Here’s the summary from the back cover:

In 1773 England, Lady Keturah Banning Tomlinson and her sisters find themselves the heiresses of their father’s estates and know they have one option: Go to the West Indies to save what is left of their heritage.

Although it flies against all the conventions, they’re determined to make their own way in the world. But once they arrive in the Caribbean, conventions are the least of their concerns. On the infamous island of Nevis, the sisters discover the legacy of the legendary sugar barons has vastly declined–and that’s just the start of what their eyes are opened to in this harsh and unfamiliar world. 

Keturah never intends to put herself at the mercy of a man again, but every man on the island seems to be trying to win her hand and, with it, the ownership of her plantation. She could desperately use an ally, but even an unexpected reunion with a childhood friend leaves her questioning his motives.

To keep her family together and save the plantation that is her last chance at providing for them, can Keturah ever surrender her stubbornness and guarded heart to God and find the healing and love awaiting her?

Now, aren’t you intrigued?

 

Keturah Spiritual Content & Themes

Unlike too many Christian fiction books, this book does not shy away from difficult themes. I personally appreciate that. Good fiction causes us to wrestle with real questions, and that this book does.

Some of the themes she explores are:

  • A heart closed off from God – The main character has seen God to be a let-down. He’s failed to be good and failed to protect her. Bergren wrote this in a realistic and believable way. Keturah’s response to her past is spot on with the reactions of many people around us. She did a wonderful job of having Keturah wrestle with her relationship with God in a meaningful and gradual way. Even though there is a “big moment” spiritually, her transformation continues to be gradual.
  • Slavery: Slavery was a way of life in the 18th and 19th centuries. The sisters have grown up with slaves, but encounter a level of barbaric cruelty they have not seen before when they reach the island. At times we see Keturah deeply troubled by what she sees and seeking to resolve it by treating her slaves differently. At other times we see her turning her head from the reality of the slave markets and the reality that she owns other human beings. She has to, because she has a business to run and a livelihood to make, and she has to find some inner justification for the practice because no other way exists – at least to her. In some ways, she sees her slaves as family, and in other ways, her prejudice is evident – probably more to us than to her! Bergren does not shy away from writing some gruesome and disturbing realities of slavery. I’m grateful she doesn’t. She lets the reader sit with the discomfort of what reality was. She also doesn’t resolve it – the story isn’t about Keturah becoming an abolitionist and freeing all the slaves on the island. The issue of slavery remains. We see Keturah wrestle, we see her perspective change slightly, but slavery is still there, because it was there, and that is a tragic reality we all have to grapple with.
  • Patriarchy: Patriarchy was also the way of life. This book illustrates what happens when humans distort God’s intention for male and female. God’s design was for men to protect, care for, and lead women so that they would flourish. Man’s distortion is for men to lord over females and use them for their own gain and pleasure. At times, Keturah feels no different than the slaves – her life is “owned” and directed by the whims of men. She is powerless over them. It may look prettier from her place of finery, but oppression is oppression, and it’s all wrong. Again, Bergren addresses this issue not directly with a rising up of women and with politicized character monologues but by simply revealing what history tells us was (and too often still is) true – then letting us wrestle with it.
  • Abuse: Physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse are all addressed in this book, both in a character’s past and in present circumstances. Bergren is not graphic, but she is explicit – what I mean is that she does not gratuitously describe abuse situations in crime scene detail, but she does make clear what is happening in a raw way. This may be hard for some readers who have experienced abuse personally to read. It’s worth trudging through though because she shows how God can bring healing and freedom from the past.
  • Healing: The true beginning of Keturah’s healing happens when she begins to realize that God was with her in the middle of the awful circumstances she went through. He didn’t abandon her, and He wasn’t to blame for what she experienced. She begins to grasp that her past does not have to have power over her and that God can craft a new story for her. As she remembers the identity HE has given her instead of the identity others imposed upon her, she is able to open her heart to God again, which in turn allows her to eventually open her heart to love again.

Storytelling Factors:

Because I’m writing too much, I’m going to rate these on a scale of 0 to 10 and say little more.

  • Character development: 10. Each character seems like a real person. Their personalities are evident through their actions and their personalities. Every character, from minor to major, is well-developed.
  • Character growth: 8. Keturah’s character growth is gradual, believable, and follows a long range trajectory. There isn’t much character growth among secondary characters, but Keturah’s is focal.
  • Resolve: 8. This is hard to answer, because I don’t know where she’ll go in the next two books. I felt satisfactorily resolved for now yet simultaneously wanting for more – in a good way, in the pre-order-the-next-book kind of way. How she develops the story in the subsequent books will affect whether this number goes up or down. If it were a stand alone book, I’d maybe rate it lower, but since she has a series in mind, I am guessing there is more to tell. That being said, I also appreciate that sequel or not, she doesn’t wrap everything up in a pretty bow – because let’s be real, that’s not life.
  • Drama: 10. It’s realistically compelling without being overly, obnoxiously dramatic. They encounter a lot, but it’s all believable because that was life in that day crossing oceans and living in the West Indies. The drama kept it engaging without making me roll my eyes saying, “here’s another unrealistic dramatic development”.
  • Length: 10. It’s over 350 pages. I’m a fast reader, so anything shorter feels too short, and in my opinion, it’s hard to develop a complex story with deep character development and satisfactory, unrushed endings in anything less than that. The length felt just right.
  • Descriptions: 10. This book is descriptively rich. You feel like you are there on the ship, and later the island, with the characters. She doesn’t have paragraphs detailing everything in sight, but gives rich and thorough glimpses showing the reader the lush landscape of the island and the historical reality of the setting.
  • Historicity: 8. She brings the time period to life through careful research. It’s a true historical fiction book – a book through which the reader actually learns about the time and place of its setting rather than simply a story that is set in history. The time, place, and setting are as important as the story itself; they can’t be disconnected. The only reason it’s not a 10 is because it isn’t written entirely in period-appropriate language, which was a good choice on her part – that would be cumbersome to read!
  • Romance: 7. The romance is secondary, but I like this (personal preference). The real “plot” is not a romance but a young woman’s efforts to save her family. In that are many secondary plotlines: running a sugar plantation, slavery, the hostility of her neighbors, and the romance. It is not a romance novel; it is a novel with a romance in it. That being said, I only have one critique of the romance aspect (see below).

Critiques of Keturah

  • The writing style includes a little bit of old English dialogue and expressions. On one hand, I appreciate that, as it enhanced the historicity. She writes in the author’s note that she intentionally chose not to write the dialogue entirely in Old English style because it would be too difficult to read. I agree with that choice, however, at times the Old English language/expressions felt random or out of place. Perhaps an all-or-nothing approach with the Old English dialogue would have been better. But really, that’s a pretty minor critique.
  • The climactic romance “moment” between the male and female protagonist was a little too sudden for me. She did a good job of building the romance and the character’s feelings, but that particular moment felt too dramatic to be believable. Perhaps dramatic isn’t the right word. Too big of a jump for the heroine. I don’t want to give too much a way, but I think I would have written that moment as a climactic build that left the reader wanting that moment but didn’t peak quite yet, then peaks. To me, a good romance is like a series of subtly increasing mountain peaks that build toward the biggest peak. This was still a great romance, but the leap between those particular two peaks was too big.
  • I have to wait a year to read the second one 🙂

All in all this was a beautiful, compelling story rich with description and ripe with topics to grapple with and spiritual truths to glean. Lisa T. Bergren, I’m counting down days until Verity comes out!

 

The Paradox – and the Calling – of Christian Parenting

This morning was one of those parenting mornings.

If you’re a parent, you know what I mean.

Britney Lyn Hamm Parenting
This was taken a couple months ago, but it’s an accurate reflection of my toddler’s morning.

The kind that makes you want to put a pillow over your head and pretend morning never happened.

The kind that leaves you hustling hurriedly out of playgroup early because you’re horrified at your child(ren)’s behavior and they’re out of second (or seventeenth) chances.

The kind that makes you question if you’re doing anything right, because the little people don’t seem to be practicing anything that you’ve taught them.

The kind that leaves your already-throbbing head hurting worse, the tension between your shoulders tightening by the second.

The kind that makes you remember you are absolutely powerless to control your children’s hearts and actions.

 

The Paradox of Parenting

Mornings like this make me honestly re-evaluate my role as a parent (and no, I don’t mean jumping on a plane headed for Jamaica under a new ID, although I’m not denying that passing thought may have occurred once or twice). Because there are two paradoxical realities at play here:

  • My children have their own free will.
  • It’s my job to lovingly guide and shape their hearts.

The delicate reality hanging in the balance between those two paradoxes is this: I’m powerless to control my children, but I’m not powerless to shape them. In fact, it’s my job as a parent to shape my children to be functional individuals who can rightly live within the context of society.

 

The Calling on Christian Parents

As a Christian parent, that job extends further to a calling placed on my life by God – the calling to “train up a child in the way he/she should go” (Proverbs 22:6).

Now, I know this verse gets a bad rap because of the ways it is misused to support abusive or authoritarian parenting measures. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, shall we?

Over the years I’ve discipled several students who were violin majors at a local university. They’ve described the two violin professors they can choose to study under (let’s call them Professor J and Professor B). Both are highly respected professors who are known for turning out quality violinists well-prepared for master’s programs or Violin DuBoix morguefile.comprofessional careers. But their approaches could not be more different.

Professor J is known to be a caring professor who challenges his students to meet their potential and work hard with an undergirding foundation of support and encouragement. The students love him, and they flourish under his instruction, not just musically but as individuals.

Professor B is known to be a cold professor who demands them to be perfect by belittling them, condescending them, embarrassing them, and being downright mean to them.  The students improve under his instruction, but often at the expense of their mental and emotional health.

I’m afraid when we hear the phrase “train up a child in the way he/she should go” we automatically picture Professor B style parenting. Hard line. Critical. Cold. Harsh. Belittling. May produce “results”, but at the expense of the overall well-being of the child.

I think there’s another way, and I know this because Scripture is clear: God is love. God IS love. God, the one who calls us to diligently train up our children, is a God who abundantly loves His children. Part of how His love is manifest toward us is through His patient, diligent “training” of our hearts and minds toward what is best for us.

Anything worth doing in life requires training. Why should we expect parenting to be any different? Yet I admit, all too often, I expect parenting to be a walk in the park with minimal interruption to my day. Hah!

 

Training Up a Child – The Right Way

As Godly parents, I think the calling to “train up our children in the way they should go” means three things (someone older and wiser, please tell me if I’ve got it all wrong!):

  1. Train up a child in the knowledge of the Lord

    God’s ultimate desire for our children is that they know Him. That they know His word, because that’s His story and His love letter to us. That they know His heart – how He loves them and went to great lengths to redeem them. That they know His character – that He is trustworthy and good and dependable. We are shaping them to have a clear understanding of who He is and what He’s done for them. What they choose to do with that knowledge is up to them.

  2. Train up a child in the ways of the Lord

    God created humans to function in
    a certain way, in terms of how we relate to Him, to each other, to the world around us, to authority. That’s what His rules are all about – His loving expression of how He created us to thrive in human society. As we give our children clear rules and expectations, we’re teaching them how to rightly relate to God, to others, to the world around us, and to the authorities over us. We are shaping them to be functional, contributing members of the Body of Christ and of society. How they choose to live as adults is up to them.

  3. Train up a child in the love of the Lord

    God Himself is love, and His greatest commandment is to love Him with all our hearts and love others selflessly. As I teach them, I can model and demonstrate His love, His mercy, His grace, and His kindness to them so that, like the students of Professor J, they flourish in who He created them to be. I can shape them to treat others with kindness and respect. If they choose to love God is up to them.

Crown of thorns Bible MOrguefile.com

Notice I didn’t say “train up a child to be saved.” That part is beyond our control – I cannot make my children believe anything. I cannot force them to repent of their sin. I cannot flip a magic switch to surrender their hearts to His loving lordship of their lives. In that sense, I am powerless.

But I can shape them toward a right understanding of God and themselves. I can shape them to live in the way He intends for us to live, because that is what’s best for them and the world around them. And I can shape them to feel loved and extend love to others.

 

Parenting is Not for the Faint of Heart

Hamm kids on a walk
For the record, these three little people are pretty awesome.

On a day like today, I am reminded that this job is not for the faint of heart. I want to go to playgroup and sit back and talk with my friends about what God is doing in our lives while the children play peacefully nearby. I want to eat my lunch uninterrupted. I want them to play together without arguing.

But that’s not my job. Each of their squabbles is an opportunity to shape them toward loving others. Each of their meltdowns is an opportunity to shape them to feel loved. Each of their acts of disobedience is an opportunity to shape them toward obedience. Each of their expressions of hurt feelings and frustration is an opportunity to shape them toward knowledge of the God who heals, who restores, who loves.

Peaceful parenting isn’t the goal. Productive parenting is.

So though I felt fried by 9 a.m., though I didn’t sit for more than 2 minutes at a time during playgroup, though we had to leave early, it’s not all for naught. The bumps are the path toward growth. The friction is the heat of transformation. The tears are the drops of restoration.

It’s for something much greater, much more significant. It’s for shaping the little people God has entrusted to me so that, prayerfully, they know Him, they walk in His ways, and they live in love of God and others. It’s doing my part to shape the dough and trusting Him with the exact outcome.

It’s training time. Who’s with me?

 

Violin photo by Duboix at Morguefile.com

Bible photo by jclk8888 at Morguefile.com