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!

 

Book Review: Confessions of an Economic Hitman

 Confessions of an Economic Hitman hit the literary scene in 2004 as a controversial but highly acclaimed work. In Confessions, John Perkins tells his nearly 30-year-old story about hit job as what he called an “economic hit man”, or “EHM.” Perkins relays the circumstances surrounding his entry into the position of an EHM and takes the reader through a spy-like narrative of his interactions with various countries concluding with his exit out of the position and his inner conflict about telling his story. Perkins’ book poses many interesting questions and challenges about the world economic stage, “coporatocracy,” the nature of the United States’ foreign relations, and links between exploitative economic activity and hatred toward the U.S. Perkins’ book leaves a lot to be explained, researched, and proven, but it does provide an important entry point into further investigation of the propositions he puts forth. While some have quickly adopted Confessions and its allegations as infallible truth, and while I do believe the book offers threads of truth throughout many issues, I am left wary of the full credulity of Perkins’ conclusions as well as his interpretation of what really happened.

Perkins describes his work as an EHM as that of a highly paid professional who travels around the world cheating other countries out of trillions of dollar using sex, deception, payoffs, bogus financial reports, bribery, and anything else that is necessary to get other countries to be forever indebted to the U.S. He does this by creating financial plans convincing these countries to take loans from the U.S. that in actuality they will never be able to pay off in order to funnel that money back into the U.S.’s economy. He considers this a march toward a global empire and propagates that the U.S. government exploits people in order to guarantee its global imperialism. Perkins argues that, though we have been taught to believe that capitalism and this approach is helping the majority of people, after a decade of working as an EHM and 30 more years in other global work, in actuality the system helps a few at the expense and exploitation of many.

While Confessions was an interesting read and inspired me to dig deeper into the startling issues Perkins presents, overall I find Perkins hard to take seriously. I did not find the book to have solid support, nor did it read as a credible, backed-up reliable source but rather one man’s speculation on vaguely explained events driven by his overstated guilty conscience. The lack of actual proof or examples of what he did leave room for question of what his actual work. I am also left to question Perkins’ reliability given the fact that after 10 years of lying and continuing his work despite his guilty conscience he so easily declined exposing the “truth” with one bribe after another. It makes me question just how sure he himself is of what he claims is the terrible truth—is it really that terrible? If he believed it was true and his guilty conscience was that great, would he not have felt a much more urgent need to tell it 30 years ago? His claim that 9/11 was the last straw because of his part in it seems a weak connection that is possible, but unproven. That is how I view most of the events Perkins’ explains—they are plausible, but not proven, and it will take much more that his interpretation alone without superior support or other testimonies to convince me that he was actually employed by the government, that the U.S. government is actually cheating and exploiting all these countries, and that a chunk of terrorism and assassinations in the past 40 years are inside jobs. Plausible? Yes, if far-fetched. Proven? Hardly.

 

Perkins writes from his own bias, as any person would. I do not discredit his story, and as I said before it causes me to think and desire to search deeper and find out if in fact Perkins’ interpretation is actual truth. If it is, then that drastically changes many things. But until that is proven, I am unwilling to let one book dictate my whole view of the government. Confessions is a necessary book to read; that being said, I think any person who reads it should do further research and make their decision after consulting many sources of various biases. Anyone who wants to find reason to hate the U.S. government and attribute terrorism and the world hate of the U.S. to be our government’s fault will certainly find their expectation fulfilled, but if read critically, Confessions leaves many questions left unexplained, or at best, vaguely elucidated.

Despite the uncertainty of its credulity, Confessions is a book worth reading for anyone interested in the economic and the political scenes with a touch of adventure, for it does provide much food for thought and many valid, important thoughts. Perkins sheds light on the global scene that is so ignorantly misunderstood by American people. His call for awareness and taking action on behalf of the millions of starving people is a valiant effort that cries for a response. His theme of exploitation of the underprivileged, while perhaps over-generalized and wrongly attributed, does expose the under-acknowledged fact that in the corporate world often exploitation does take place and often people benefit at the cost of another. But Perkins’ implications and allegations against the U.S. government, and particularly again the Republican administrations of the past 40 years, regarding exploitation, hiring of these EHMs, and terrorism/assasinations are unwarranted, unproven, and a stretch beyond believable. In conclusion, Confessions is a starting point in exploring the true workings of U.S. economics and foreign affairs but should not, by any means, be the end point.