I will admit right up front that, having read three of her books, I had given up on Siri Mitchell. Of the three I read one was really good, one was mediocre and one I couldn't finish. Feeling that one out of three wasn't a very good track record, I concluded that Ms. Mitchell simply wasn't the author for me.
So what made me decide to give her newest, The Messenger, a try (and not just to try it but to actually purchase it)? Well, for one thing it is set during the Revolutionary War. That is an era that particularly interests me, and historical fiction (Christian or otherwise) set during the Revolutionary War is rarer than hens' teeth. Secondly, I knew from the promo blurbs that the book focused on a young Quaker woman. Since the one previous Siri Mitchell book I really enjoyed was about a young Puritan woman in 17th century Massachussetts, I thought perhaps there might be enough similarities that I would enjoy this newest one, as well. My hunch proved to be correct; I am glad I gave Siri Mitchell another chance because The Messenger is an excellently-written and thoroughly enjoyable tale, one of her best books to date.
The story focuses equally on two main characters: Hannah Sunderland, the aforementioned Quaker young woman, and Jeremiah Jones, an embittered former soldier-turned-barkeep. The story is set in Philadelphia during the winter and spring of 1778/1779 when the city is occupied by the British. It is typical of Siri Mitchell to use alternating narrators to tell her tales. In The Messenger she has perfected this device; narrator switches occur concurrently with chapter changes, with each POV (Jeremiah and Hannah) clearly identified so there are none of the confusing narrator switches of her earlier books.
In Hannah and Jeremiah Siri Mitchell has done an excellent job of creating main characters that every reader can identify with in some way or other. Their struggles are not superficial or shallow, but deep and elemental and will resonate with many. Hannah's pious Quaker upbringing has trained her to not only eschew politics and war and to shun all involvement in the conflict raging around her, but to always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth at all times and in every situation. But love and loyalty to her twin brother leads her into forbidden territory, and she gradually becomes involved in a situation that will test her belief in everything she has been taught. Ultimately her love and loyalty to her faith and her family is on the line and she is forced to choose.
Jeremiah Jones was a young soldier with a promising military career ahead, when he was wounded in the French and Indian Wars. He fell victim to the Brits' snobbish attitude towards the colonials when he was passed over for medical treatment in favor of British-born soldiers; as a consequence, what was a serious but treatable arm wound resulted instead in an amputation. This plus his realization that even had he not been wounded he still would have been passed over for a promotion in favor of British-born soldiers, has caused bitterness to lodge in his heart to the point where he is filled with it. The only satisfaction he gets in his lonely life is to run a pub where he can take British gold in exchange for watching the soldiers drink themselves insensible. When he and Hannah become the most unlikely partners in a scheme to free colonial prisoners in a Philadelphia jail he finds himself attracted to her; but will he be able to break his heart free from its own prison of icy bitterness?
Of course, this story is a romance between Hannah and Jeremiah, but it is so convincingly done that it never overtakes the narrative but emerges naturally from it. In The Messenger (as in her earlier book Love's Pursuit) Siri Mitchell shows that when she sets out to tell a tale of a young woman, raised in a culture of strong faith, who faces a critical challenge to that faith, her family, and her society, she can do so with skill. (When she attempts to tell stories set in more "frivolous" times/places -- such as the court of Elizabethan England or the high society of Gilded Age New York -- she is far less successful. However, I don't want to spend time here critiquing her other works; if you're interested in my opinion of some of her other books check my reviews for "A Constant Heart" and "She Walks in Beauty.")
While The Messenger is possibly Siri Mitchell's longest book to date (although this is cleverly disguised by the use of very small font, no doubt to keep the book from being too thick and thus scaring off readers), it is a captivating and fast read. And while I preferred the more bittersweet ending of Love's Pursuit, still I found The Messenger to be a strong, finely-written story that I highly recommend.