The Messenger by Siri Mitchell is set in Philadelphia in the late 1770s. The British occupied the area and made themselves at home, taking over citizens’ houses or pulling down their fences or shutters for fire wood. Some welcomed them, some hated them, some just tried to deal with the situation until it was over.
Hannah Sunderland’s Quaker family steadfastly refused to take sides, but that didn’t protect them when an officer wanted their home as well. While not welcoming British rule, they felt it was wrong to fight against it, and when rebels were captured and put in prison, they felt that helping them would interfere with God’s discipline of their rebellion.
Hannah was fine with that – until her own twin brother joined the rebels due to injustices he saw the British commit. When he landed in prison, she tried to find a way to visit him and bring him food secretly.
Jeremiah Jones, a tavern keeper, lost his arm when fighting for the British in the French and Indian war due to the surgeon’s taking a British officer before him, resulting in his injured arm becoming beyond repair and having to be amputated. Embittered, he turned against the British and that officer in particular, but secretly. British soldiers frequented his establishment, allowing him to hear bits of information he could pass on the the rebels. But when one of his spies bowed out, he had to find someone to take his place. As he noticed Hannah walking by the jail, he decided to offer to help her get a pass inside through his contacts if she would take a message for him to a colonial officer there.
Thus began an uneasy liaison. Jeremiah had little respect for Quakers and what he felt was their self-righteousness. Hannah exasperated him with her refusal to lie or be deceptive. She, in turn, did not think much of him or his profession. But they needed each other.
This novel seemed to me a little slow to get going, with Hannah and Jeremiah constantly bickering over every little thing. But the farther along it went, the more interesting and engaging it became. I enjoyed the author’s notes at the end detailing what was real and what was fictional in the novel and marveling at how she wove them together.
I had not know much about Quakers before this except that they were pacifists, said “thee” and “thou,” and dressed simply (and made good oatmeal. 🙂 )
I enjoyed learning more about them but was surprised by what I learned, especially that in their weekly meetings, they waited silently for God to speak to and through individuals rather than studying what He already said to them through His Word. (The author notes at the end that though originally they expected their “inner light” not to contradict Scripture, over years they they gave more weight and credence to it than the Bible, leading some of them astray). They also believe that “there is that of God in everyone,” a phrase often repeated throughout the book. It seems to go beyond the concept of being made in God’s image: Hannah muses at one point, “The Creator of our souls had left a part of Him inside us, and the more we responded to and came to resemble Him, the more our inner lights increased.” Though we are all made in God’s image, He does not reside in each of us (1 John 5:12). So they’re farther from Biblical Christianity than I thought, but it was interesting to learn their customs.
I especially empathized with Hannah and her struggles between the desire to help others and right wrongs vs. what she had always been taught:
Everywhere I looked, everything I learned only added to the sense that there were grave injustices being heaped upon our land. And that Friends, too easily persuaded to silence, allowed them to continue. What if we were not only called to maintain peace but also to defend it? What if we’d all been wrong? What if men were called to fight for what they believed in?
The chapters alternate between Hannah’s and Jeremiah’s points of view. I listened to the audiobook version but also reread parts in the Kindle version (the latter includes the author’s notes and discussion questions.) The male narrator performing Jeremiah’s part did a superb job with both inflection and mood. It took me a long while to warm up to Hannah, as she came across as stuffy and self-righteous at first, and I am not sure how much of that was the writing and how much the narrator, or both. Probably she was meant to come across that way. But I did eventually.
In the last third of the book when the situation they’re passing messages about comes to a head, it was hard to put the book down. I thought it ended a little abruptly. I don’t necessarily have to have everything tied up in a neat bow at the end, but I would have liked to have seen a little more about how things worked out for everyone.
Overall it was a good, informative, and later on a very exciting book.
Genre: Historical fiction
Potential objectionable elements: Nothing explicit, but a scene with the officer who took over the Sunderland’s house “entertaining” a woman in his room went on much longer than necessary. I think the idea was to show he was a scoundrel, but I got that quite early on.
My rating: 8 out of 10