- Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang (St. Martin’s Press; August 2017)
- In 40 words or less: Town Line, New York had a rare outpost of secessionists as the Civil War approached. Mary Willis puts her family home and business in jeopardy as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Wang imagined this story from materials found in his hometown.
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Locale: US (Buffalo area, NYC)
- Time: Civil War
- Historical fiction can send a reader straight to the internet to learn more. Elements of this novel did just that for me. It is a September Indie Next pick.
Mary Willis wants more than small town life after her college graduation in 1859. A visit to her alma mater draws her into aiding the Underground Railroad, crucial since her family lives near the Canadian border. The Willis family is very prominent in Town Line, New York, with farmlands, a lumber mill, and a well-established business shipping and selling materials throughout the region. Mr. Willis is a town commissioner as well, further ensuring his influence.
Town Line is a split community. While many are in favor of Lincoln and the north in the impending war, a group of German immigrants, led by their minister, are sympathetic to the southern cause and believe that escaped slaves should be caught and returned as property. Several among them scour the area as armed bounty hunters, known as Copperheads, creating dangerous confrontations among neighbors.
At the start of 1861, Joe Bell has reached New York after fleeing Virginia. Taught to read by his master and very skilled, Joe is better equipped to navigate the dangers than many others. So close to freedom, Joe tangles with two Copperheads and is badly wounded, finally seeking cover on Willis property. His good fortune in this choice is tainted by the vengeance sought for the casualties of the encounter. From then forward, Joe’s and Mary’s lives are inextricably entwined.
Leander Willis is the family’s heir apparent. More interested in hanging around with his childhood buddies, his father dispatches him to nearby Buffalo to begin to learn the ropes of the family business. Leander is easily distracted by the wheeling and dealing and the lure of nightlife. Soon he is drawn to New York City and his life spirals out of control, damaging the family business in the process.
After returning home, Leander seeks redemption by banding together most of his friends as recruits for the Union Army. As a son of a prominent family, Leander is commissioned as an officer, common practice in the day. Soon they realize that the war is not the lark they imagined.
The beauty of Daren Wang’s debut novel is the teasing out of new facets of history within an engaging story. I’m a big fan of authors who drop bread crumbs to encourage readers to research the veracity of surprising details within the story. Wang did this very well. Most stories of the Civil War focus on Gettysburg and south. Bringing to the fore the northern experience and Canadian involvement is a welcome change. The characters he created are complicated, many admirable, others less so. Throughout the book, people are forced to deal with the consequences of their choices. The mix of characters, history and plot twists make for a worthy addition to Civil War historical fiction.