A Light In The Storm: The Civil War Diary Of Amelia Martin (Dear America), by Karen Hesse
This book is a melancholy one but also one that helps the reader better understand one of the more obscure aspects of the Civil War, and that was the life of the civilian in Delaware. The Civil War in Delaware is not well known because it was a slave state that had few slaves and few people at all and was never in any particular risk of rebelling against the Union and had no battles fought in it and sent few troops to the Union. Even so, this book captures the feeling of division that Delaware and the rest of the United States suffered, a divide not only between North and South and slave and free but a divide between husbands and wives and between the ideals of the United States and how that worked itself out with its laws and its behavior. The book is written for middle grade readers and has more of a narrative flow then one would expect. And, all the more poignantly, the book has a sad ending that makes the division and its lasting results even more pointed and sad than one would expect.
The course of this book takes up about a year’s worth of time between December 1860 and 1861 in a lighthouse area in coastal southern Delaware as the author is one of three people who divide the watch in a dangerous part of the Delmarva coast. The author struggles with multiple jobs, including assisting in the teaching of children as well as taking care of her mentally ill mother (who ends up leaving her father in part because of the strains of the Civil War and their very different opinions about slavery and the war and its conduct) while also engaging with her neighbors and reading a lot of books and corresponding with a young man about her age who she finds herself increasingly drawn to but also somewhat concerned about. After the main part of the diary ends there is an epilogue that provides a fictional summing of up the narrator’s melancholy and isolated life and then some photos and a bit of discussion in the captions about the Civil War itself, leading the reader an understanding of what the author thinks about a particularly obscure aspect of Civil War history.
This is a book that seems written with the desire to address issues of contemporary significance in the face of writing about the Civil War. To be sure, it is based on some historical incidents and places, but the deliberate choice to write about a young woman of almost marriageable age who was helping her father to make a living while dealing with a mother whose mental health was not good where the struggles of adulting show themselves all the more problematic even for young people who are caught up in the midst of war. Amelia finds herself corresponding with a young man who fights and shows himself to be a cynical person who she wonders if she can make a happy life with (hint: it goes about as well as one would expect if one happens to be a somewhat cynical person). As a teacher, as an assistant lighthouse operator who engages in a delicate relationship with her neighbors and who struggles with the division of her family and of her nation, the girl is someone who the reader can relate to while the author smuggles in all kinds of issues about family and gender and race and politics and the dilemmas of doing what is right.