A Measure of Light / Beth Powning
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2015.
This was a bit of an outlier of a read for me; I don't usually pick up straight-up historical fiction, especially if it's about early America.
But I've read other books by Beth Powning before, and think she's a wonderful writer. Plus this features a Quaker woman as a main character so there was that element of religious freedom and women's lives to intrigue me as well.
I thought it was an interesting novel -- slower moving and invested in character development, as in Powning's other novels. It really examines how one lives within a particular society, especially if the social norms are stifling or limiting. Each person interacts with their surroundings differently, and in this book women like Anne Hutchinson, an intelligent and brave woman, flaunt what they consider ridiculous rules - for example, Hutchinson held a theological circle for women in her home, questioning the need for ministers, playing a large role in the Antinomian controversy.
And then there is the main character, based on a real historical figure, Mary Dyer -- a Puritan who flees religious persecution in England to come to Massachusetts in 1635, only to find that there is persecution of another kind in her new surroundings. After being accused of apostasy and having the male leaders of their colony use the stillbirth of her child as proof, she and her husband leave the colony to move to Rhode Island, but she finds she cannot love her other children or her life because of this trauma.
Taking a break to return to England, she is converted by the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and becomes a 'radical' for them. When she returns to the colonies, it's to find that Quakers have been outlawed. But this doesn't stop her.
Mary is a woman who gives up her home, and her family, to speak the truth as she knows it, and is harassed and arrested for it eventually. For the crime of believing that a committee of men was not God, that religious freedom for herself and others was important enough to fight for, in her own Quakerish way, she becomes one of the four Quakers martyred for their beliefs in New England.
This story is beautifully written, in Powning's evocative style. The natural world in both its beauty and harshness is finely observed, and the women's lives - alongside their religious ideals - are realistic and grounded in physicality. As a New Englander raised as Quaker, Powning has an authenticity in the telling that makes this historical setting believable and compelling, both in its starkness and its fervour.