Was blind, but now I see.

1 : 1 November 2001


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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


(A novel on 'enduring faith amid cultural and racial conflicts' by Denise Williamson, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 2001.)

Denise Williamson: When Stars Begin to Fall


Some years ago I asked my class to write an outline on the biography of Abraham Lincoln. These students were learning various methods of teaching English to speakers of other languages. The outline was intended for their future students to enable them to write a composition on Abraham Lincoln. I was rather surprised to find that none of the American students (who were all Caucasians) included slavery abolition as a point in the selected milestones of Abraham Lincoln's life. Everyone included, however, the Civil War. The two international students in the class included this point in their outline. Upon inquiry I found out that in the thinking of Americans the Civil War subsumed the abolition of slavery. However, for others, this single item stood out as the most important point in the life of Abraham Lincoln.


It was difficult to evaluate the response of the white students in my class. But it seemed clear that this process of shifting the terrible human tragedy of slavery as an item within the super-ordinate category of Civil War, somehow enables the majority in the United States to move forward, leaving the past behind. But the victims of slavery may not be so ready to move forward. The past is always present in their thinking. Also I have come across some truly devoted Christians who readily "explain away" slavery as a product of the economics in the southern states. Their tone, in such contexts, absolved the white masters from their commissions and omissions.


If this were the case, then, on the other side, as I already noted, the African-American is unable and unwilling to forget the slavery that he did not personally undergo, but that his ancestors did. He always looks at the world, especially the United States, only through this historical glass, not recognizing the sea changes that have taken place since the Civil War. The elements of slavery, such as personal oppression, economic deprivation, extreme poverty, significant curtailment of his personal freedom, and a failure to recognize that he also is created in the image of God, are there everywhere even in the present day society, he avers.


Where and when do we begin reconciliation? How do we make it happen? Are there incidents, episodes, individuals and associations we could look up to? How do we blunt the pangs of agony of the past? How do we make peace within ourselves and with others? The phenomenon of seeking forgiveness for the past mistakes or sins is greatly talked about. Does it really help? Actions speak more loudly than words. Has the body of Christ initiated actions that speak louder than the words?


Denise Williamson, in her novel When Stars Begin to Fall, in the Roots of Faith series, spins a story, taking place in Pennsylvania immediately after "the bloody confrontation of masters and fugitive slaves in Christiana, September 1851." The beginning focus of the story is on the role of the Quakers in helping the slaves that were freed. The story, however, changes into a deliberate collaboration between a freed-slave man and a white woman, who left her in-laws with her child after the death of her husband who was against slavery, working together to save a fair-skinned boy that the woman saved. Because the boy was a fair-skinned Negro, some even thought that the boy was hers. The story builds a team of Quakers, African-American clergyman, and a white mute man who lost his speech in a fire accident. The entire cast was devoted to the abolition movement, because it was the right thing to do in the sight of God. Individuals in the story had their own portion of doubt about their own life, and doubt about God's grace and intervention. The fog clears from their minds as the story moves forward, and their personal experience of God's goodness brings them around to total dependence on God. "Love your God with all your heart," and, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" are the two basic truths that run through the entire story, as applied to the slavery situation in 1851-1852.

Joseph Whitsun is not a real doctor. He could not be a doctor, because law did not allow that. He was treating only "those of his own color." But the people around him seemed to say: "Make it plain to them that the only rights they have in this county are the rights we choose to lend to them. Remind them that they are not citizens, nor will they ever be." "And what does he think is, trying to protect a house for himself by having a demented white man live under his roof, when that poor deaf-mute can't do better to himself" (p. 25). Barnabas, the deaf-mute, was well placed in life before he lost his hearing in a fire. "A son wagoned him to Philadelphia and left him to live on the streets" (p. 56). Joseph and Barnabas knew the sign language devised by Gallaudet. Joseph's mother was a slave, and he himself endured slavery for twenty-one years. Was he a runaway slave? He was angry with God. His heart cried, "I have friends in slavery. I left them there! Even my mother! Will God overlook that sin in me on His Judgment Day?" (p. 40). His master freed him because of his conviction under Christ. "But what of the others? Why was I the only one? How can God be served or satisfied by one drop of recompense in a sea of injustice?" (p. 40).

Southwark borders the south side of Philadelphia. Mayleda's husband, young Sprague Ruskin, and Harriet's brother died the same day, same hour, side by side. They were traveling on a stage coming home from York City. Ruskin was riding on the outside with Harriet's brother, because the stage driver wouldn't let Harriet's brother, a colored man, travel inside on his coach's seats. After her husband's death, Mayleda was doing only charity work at Dr. Ellis' hospital. It was Dr. Ellis who had secretly trained Joseph Whitsun to be a sort of medical professional.

Mayleda felt that her dependence on the pension given her by her in-laws was a hindrance in what she felt for the Negroes. Out of friendship, Harriet still sewed for Mayleda, but her husband said that this should stop. He didn't want his wife to be acting like anybody's slave. Harriet and Mayleda together saved a runaway fair-skinned colored boy, and the boy had wounds of whiplashes on his back. "An' you surprised! You know it wa' probably his marse what sired him. All white men want is the sweetness of the mama, not no bright yeller child born from their seed" (p.80).

Charles Powell runs a store, given him by a Quaker Friend. "You know I was an orphan discarded by my dead mother's family after my father died. They thought of me as Irish and therefore worthless, even as they had my father when he lived" (p. 86). His store sells only slavery-free products. His position was peculiar: "Fancy churches love slavery more than I. Humble meetinghouses love it less! I fit nowhere." Mayleda helped save a black child "from a Dresden Valley window by an older girl who died instantly when she fell three stories down to the street. There were slave-catchers watching" (p. 90). Charles Powell had been very kind to Mayleda when she was widowed. Actually, according to Mayleda's statement to Dr. Ellis, it was his generosity as a storeowner that had kept Mayleda and her child alive that winter, by lowering the prices and increasing the measure. Dr. Ellis' plan was to hide Mayleda with the rescued Black child. Since Charles Powell was not known to be with any abolitionist's group, he could deliver the provisions to Mayleda and the child.

Powell listened to three arguments in favor slavery from the sudden visitors to his store: "How can you oppose slavery when you see the piteous condition of niggers on their own?" (p.100). "Well, so I appeal to you by reason of God's design -how He formed a race inferior to ours intellectually, but so well made for outdoor labor" (p. 102). "Well, here, I believe, is one of the most important issues for our time. This short text explains the benefits of compulsory colonization for all Negroes from Pennsylvania. It's a plan to see every colored individual removed from this state, either to be sent back to Africa or to the West Indies" (p. 105).

The story revolves somewhat around the fair-skinned Negro boy Mayleda rescued and cared for. There are many interesting twists to the story. Joseph and Angelene are in love with one another. Mayleda and Charles Powell are also in love with one another. Charles Powell was not, indeed, an orphan, it turned out to be. He discovers his original family name. Daniel, the fair-skinned Negro boy, was to be taken to Canada to have a new life. Joseph Whitsun gave the name to the boy because the boy had suffered a lot like Daniel. But the boy thinks that Joseph is his daddy. The story takes on another theme now: "A daddy can be someone who chooses to love you as his child. Think of God. He does that for us. The Bible teaches us that we are all adopted into His family" (p. 450). Towards the end we see even a kind of sibling rivalry between the rescued boy and Mayleda's daughter, Judith. Her daddy's father had told Judith "all colored people are dumb" (p. 431). After a little talk with Charles, Judith "made two important decisions. The first: to love God most of all. The second: to love others as she loves herself" (p. 432). Charles and Mayleda got married; so did Joseph and Angelene. Charles and Mayleda decided that they would "keep Daniel safe and raise him in the love and nurture of the Lord until that day when we can take him home" (to Joseph and Angelene).


It is a fine story, but somewhat lengthy. The narrative focuses more on the introduction of the characters than on the story itself. With the introduction of each character, some episode, mostly from the past, is narrated. In a manner of speaking, the story rather unfolds itself with the introduction of the characters. Denise seems to assume that the presentation of the individuals who got involved in the lives of other men and women, and the episodes in which they were either participants or the center, should be the way the story should be narrated. Another point that should be noted is that the story is carried on mostly through the conversations between the characters. The author's narration is rather limited to some descriptions here and there. Because the conversation dominates in the presentation of the story, sometimes we may lose the focus. The conversations often take the form of some moral instruction or the elucidation of the basic truths of Christian belief. While it is done very well, and it would certainly illumine, in the minds of the readers, the basic Christian faith, the way the points of correct belief and behavior are presented reduces the literary sensibility or experience of the story. We must remember that the theme of the novel is not a popular theme. People may agree with the points raised in the story, but this is not a theme that people enjoy reading about. If only the novel could be shortened, and the story focused more on the story itself, on the twists in the personal lives of the individuals, the reading of this novel would become an unmitigated joy.

Denise Williamson. When Stars Begin to Fall. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 2001.

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