From the pages of early American history, a novel about an indomitable woman who defies prejudice, the conventions of marriage and the threat of the gallows to oppose a cruel regime’s murderous persecution of the first American Quakers.
This book includes two subjects that I am always interested in learning more about; emigration to North America, and different religious groups. I have enjoyed reading about the Quakers in other books I’ve read, including The Last Runaway, The Purchase, and All True Not A Lie In It, and have loved their association with the Abolitionist Movement. But, I was never quite clear on the origins of the Quakers. A Measure of Light has changed that for me. Through Mary Dyer, we learn about the origins of the Quakers in America, their beliefs, the reasons they felt strongly about separating from other settlements, as well as about the unsettlement in Europe around the time of King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.
The story begins in England as Mary Dyer and her husband William decide to go to America to get away from the unrest in London. But, in Boston, they don’t find things to be much better. When Mary gives birth to a baby with severe birth defects, her midwife, Anne Hutchinson, tries to keep it quiet, but word gets out, and Mary becomes known as the ‘mother of a monster’. Mary wonders if she is being punished by God, or if God is trying to tell her something. In the strict Puritan community, anything that happens is a message from God, and severe punishments are handed out regularly. Mary becomes depressed.
William goes in search of a new place to settle where they will be left alone by the Puritan regime. They eventually settle in Newport, and go on to have more children and a thriving farm. But, Mary cannot bring herself out of her depression and feels little attachment to her life. She goes back to England to see her Aunt one last time, and falls in with the Quakers while she is there. This prolongs her visit to England, but also brings her some comfort, as she starts to see a new purpose in life.
She comes back to New England with a renewed sense of hope and purpose, but remains somewhat disconnected from her family. Instead, she focuses on her new group of Friends, riding into Boston to help protest the Puritan regime.
I’m not sure how I felt about Mary Dyer. Before she became depressed she was easy to like; full of life and hope for the future. But, despite feeling sympathy for her, it was hard not to also feel saddened and frustrated when she spent all those potentially wonderful years with her young family feeling detached from them. I felt sorry for her family, particularly her husband who didn’t know what to do to help her, but never stopped loving her.
Whether you find Mary likeable or distant, strong or weak, brave or foolish, you will most certainly find her life interesting, especially for a woman living in the early 1600s. She was well educated for her time, and held strong opinions. She felt the frustration of being a woman in a time when women’s thoughts and opinions did not matter.
Mary Dyer’s life in quotes:
She felt herself to be poised between two places of equal, but different, terrors. Here, in England, persecution. There, in New England – wolves, forests, fierce winters.
In such a place, a person’s smallest act would be laid bare to God – and thus, she thought, one’s existence could become a matter of terror. Or ecstasy.
Misbehavior of one can bring wrath down upon all.
Aquidneck Island, 1638-1651
She no longer prayed nor asked for forgiveness. God’s silence was absolute and the light of the world was not hers, neither beauty, nor joy, nor peace… She had become a vessel for bearing children, never knowing when God might see fit to send another monster or call home the tiny creatures.
There were no words for the emptiness where love should be but was not.
All the world’s religions are in vain. Those ministers who have been taught in Cambridge and Oxford preach form without power. Their dogma, prayers, and singing… are unneeded by those who stand directly in the rays of God’s unspeakable love for the world… We need no images and crosses, no sprinklings, no holy days, no sacraments. (Dafeny, a Quaker)
New England, 1657-1660
They do think it is their God-given duty to extirpate blasphemy. They have made more laws against us whom they call Quakers. Fines, imprisonments, mutilations, whippings. For no more than holding beliefs with which they do not agree… They fear us because we do not defer to temporal authority… Because we oppose oath-taking. Because we believe that men and women are equal and so women, too, may publish the truth. (Mary Dyer)
Back, she went, walking the roadway the Lord had set her upon. She saw how it led, step by step, to this place.
While reading A Measure of Light, I was caught up in Mary’s life and the events surrounding it. Not because this is a fast-paced novel – it’s not, but because Beth Powning puts so much care and detail into her research and writing. History oozes from the pages.
At the end of the book, Powning lets us know what is fact and what is fiction – something I greatly appreciated. The book is full of the people who actually lived in these places at these times, some more notable than others, including; King Charles I, Oilver Cromwell, William and Mary Dyer, George Fox, Rev. John Cotton, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, and Alice Tilley.
Beth Powning is the author of several other books, including The Sea Captain’s Wife, Home, The Hatbox Letters, Edge Seasons, and Shadow Child. Beth Powning is, herself, a New-England born Quaker who now makes her home in New Brunswick, Canada.
*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book. All the quotes used in this review are from an uncorrected proof.