My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“All Things New” is definitely worth a read for those who love historical fiction. The lives of the characters portrayed will pull the reader into the aftermath of the Civil War, wondering how those especially in the Southern states, survived through so much suffering, only to be adjusting to a whole new way of life.
Eugenia, an older woman raised with Southern traditions and beliefs, is having a very hard time adjusting to the changes and losses in her life. The slaves she and her husband had ‘owned’ are no longer slaves and aren’t to be treated as such. Many of them had left anyway, and Eugenia and her daughters, Josephine and Mary, now had to decide whether they could learn to live without them, or treat those remaining with them differently.
Josephine is more accepting of change and more likable in her treatment of others. She befriends a Yankee (Alexander Chandler), who has come to help with the Reconstruction and finds a friend in the enemy’s camp.
Alexander also helps Josephine (who lost a brother and a father in the fighting), to work through her anger at God.
“Should I sit in there and go through the motions, even though I no longer believe any of it? Wouldn’t that make me a hypocrite?”
“Not at all. It would make you his child. If you sensed that your real father was angry with you, if he stopped talking to you, stopped giving you things, wouldn’t you want to at least sit down with him and ask him why? that’s all I’m suggesting you do. Sit down with God and ask Him the reason for your suffering, the reason why He didn’t answer your prayers.”
Lynn Austin also attempts to portray the struggles of this era through the eyes of the slaves who are now set free, and that somehow have to find new homes and adjust to their own vastly different lives. A difficult task, but I enjoyed reading about Lizzie, and Otis, and their children and had the same hopes they did; that someday their children would be able to learn how to read and function freely in a society that had repressed and discouraged any self-fullfillment at all. Lizzie, one of the former slaves who stayed to work on the plantation, is also caught up in the drama of this novel with her own anxieties and worries for her children’s future. Will Lizzie ever find reason to change her opinion and fears?
“They can’t shut down the school..” Otis said as if to himself. “That’s the only way you’ll have a better life. Maybe if we all help Mr. Chandler, he can get it started up again.”
“Otis, no! It’s too dangerous. You want them to hurt our kids the way they hurt you?”
“We’ll be fine, Lizzie. Don’t give up hope. If we ever stop hoping and believing, then they’ll win.”
But Lizzie knew the white men would always win. She never should have begun to hope in the first place.”
Josephine is a woman who is ahead of her time, not afraid to ask questions or voice her concerns over her mother’s refusal to ‘move forward’. If Austin’s exploring of the issues and causes of the Civil War may seem a little too simplistic, we also have to remember that to portray such complex issues within the limited lives of a single novel’s characters is going to be pretty difficult.
There are events of bigotry and persecution, open hatred of both Yankee and slave (and persecution illustrated in story form, of both groups), social mores and attitudes and questions that make this time period in the novel come alive. Lizzie’s husband, Otis, gets a beating for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He survives, but a couple of others do not (although nothing is graphically portrayed). If anything, Austin was probably more restrained in her portrayal of events, as we know that life in the South during the post-Civil war era had to be very turbulent and often violent for those still struggling with their new freedoms.
“So Jesus gave in to God’s will. Is that what I’m supposed to do? It was His will that we lost the war and my daddy died and my family and I have to suffer?”
“He didn’t necessarily want the South to suffer. But it is always God’s will that the people He loves are set free. It’s why He sent Jesus. So we’d have freedom from sin, freedom to be what He created us to be, freedom to serve Him. Of course it’s going to be His will to answer the slaves’prayer.”
There are a few minor criticisms in this novel, such as the quick time period that the events occur in (all of the adjustments within the plot simply couldn’t realistically occur just within the time period of a couple of short months, for instance), and some more obvious minor events that make the reader question (I have a hard time believing that ANY of the plantation owners would host a dance a couple of months after the Civil War ended, for another instance). In particular, the ending itself and the final chapters leading up to it for me, were a bit of a stretch, and the solution maybe just a little too contrived (a criticism that unfortunately seems to be true of the vast majority of the Christian fiction genre), and some of Austin’s reasoning for the causes of the Civil War maybe a bit too simplistic. However, I still had to keep reading to discover what would happen, and I did enjoy this novel.
Austin’s plot itself is engaging enough to keep one reading just to find out the ending. Recommended for historical fiction lovers of Civil and post-Civil war era!