If there’s a subgenre of historic fiction that I find difficult to turn down, it’s historic fiction set during the American Civil War. There were so many factors at play with consequences rippling through so many groups of people in so many places and so many ways that I don’t think we’ll ever run out of stories to tell about that period of American history. The sheer size and scope of it also makes it difficult to tackle in a novel and trying to engage with too many angles of it at once can be a mistake. There is so much in Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires that is done well, but I found the novel as a whole to be underwhelming and I think that this is the culprit—plots with great promise that went underdeveloped because there were simply too many of them.
The town of Town Line in New York is near Buffalo but along the border with Canada. This means that the town is home to many slave hunters who make a living catching escaped slaves when they’re just steps away from freedom. But not everyone in town looks fondly on the practice, least of all Mary Willis whose father essentially founded the town and whose sawmill built most of it as well. When an escaped man called Joe turns up in their barn half dead, she calls on the doctor and helps to first heal then conceal the man from the men who would capture Joe and return him south. Tensions in the town rise when the war begins as many young men head off to fight for the Union where others have ties to the Confederacy.
The threads of plot that run through the novel do all connect in one way or another on the surface but when it comes to the themes underpinning the story, they’re a bit too scattered for anything to resonate with much strength. The sheer number of characters and their perspectives were spoke to the scope of the story undertaken but prevented the novel from achieving the depth necessary for thorough engagement. It was easy to feel like I was reading a detailed outline of plot points rather than a fully developed novel—a series of vignettes perhaps, but one where the underlying connective threads are informed rather then substantive.
Time passes too quickly and with too much jumping around narratively for the various arcs of character development to work cleanly. The level of interiority provided in the text gestures in predictable directions but with such large gaps between seeing some of these characters, it must be taken as given that they’ve undergone significant changes of heart “off-screen.” While it’s a leap that can be made, it isn’t necessarily a comfortable one (or in some cases, a convincing one).
Perhaps it is because I found several of the threads quite promising that I found myself disappointed in the novel as a whole. It felt like it couldn’t make up its mind about where to narrow its focus and so remained scattered; never directly about anything but indirectly about everything.
The Hidden Light of Northern Fires will be available for purchase tomorrow, August 29, 2017.