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Saturday, April 20, 2024, 10:48


Based on a true story, interesting history and sweet romance but a missed opportunity for strong womanhood. My rating: ★★★★☆

Content warnings: romance (mild), cholera deaths, feminism


I found it fascinating that this book was based on a true story. I was not familiar with the cholera epidemic in this era, and I had never heard of Louis and Matilda. Their story was so interesting, and once again, Ann H. Gabhart has a masterful touch with dialect and character voice. This book is not your typical Christian historical romance, and that was a welcome change. It also means I may accidentally give spoilers in this review, so be warned.

It was refreshing to see a Christian historical novel where guy-gets-girl wasn’t the only emphasis, but Ruth’s story was so sweet and beautifully done. I really enjoyed seeing an older heroine have more of the focus, and the romance in this book was a lovely slow-burn that didn’t make me uncomfortable. She and Will were both strong characters with a lot of things to overcome, and I loved rooting for them.

I also loved rooting for Louis. He was a strong, well-drawn character, and his mighty faith was such an encouragement. I felt as if I knew him, or at least wanted to know him, and I can’t imagine what life must have been like for the real historical Louis. This novel also does an excellent job showing the tension for people who knew slavery was wrong but had no way of rectifying the problem. It’s easy to look back and criticize, but what a fraught situation. That is displayed very well here.

However . . . I had a hard time rooting for Adria. (Except her name. So pretty!) I wanted to root for her, and I really did applaud her desire to stand against slavery. Unfortunately, her constant pushing back against “convention” weakened that stand for me. Biblically and historically, I am much more interested in strong women who fight with humility and wisdom instead of irritation or rebellion. Because Adria chafed against so many other things (having an escort, wearing hats and long skirts, not being allowed to preach, being expected to marry, on and on), her choice to push back against slavery didn’t have the force for me that it would have if she had shown an attitude of contentment and graciousness in everything but that one vital point. She never seemed to notice or care that men also had to abide by social conventions or that some of those distinctions were biblical rather than societal.

This is not to say that there weren’t real issues. I fully agree that women should have had (and did have) a great influence in abolition. Just not with the attitude Adria tended to show. We have wonderful examples of influential women who displayed more biblical attitudes. I think of Stephen Gano’s daughter in early 19th-century Rhode Island, organizing shelter and Bible teaching for slaves who were assembled there before being sent south. I think of Hannah More, whose fight for women’s education was so much stronger to me because she embraced women’s distinctive roles and responded with grace within her society. The contrast is especially vivid because I just finished a novel based on Martha Washington, who had a tremendous impact on her world because she embraced the role she had been given. Even Abigail Adams, known for encouraging her husband to “remember the ladies,” had profound influence in her circle without this defiant attitude.

These women changed their worlds. River to Redemption is set only a few decades after the deaths of these historical figures, but I felt as if Adria was a 20th-century suffragette. That attitude also made other parts of her storyline less effective for me, since her objections to marriage seemed based more in reaction to cultural expectations than a genuine call to serve the Lord in singleness. At the same time, it was wonderful to have singleness play a part in a Christian historical novel. I would have loved to see more true historical strength and influence on display.

That is a very lengthy caveat, because I felt it needed some explanation. I do think, though, that most Christian historical readers will enjoy this book. I would gladly give Louis’s history and Ruth’s story five stars.

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Jayna Baas is the author of Preacher on the Run and director of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network. Sign up for her newsletter and receive a free short story here.

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