Thursday, November 3, 2016

Book Review: Thorn in My Heart

Title: Thorn in My Heart

Author: Liz Curtis Higgs

Author's web site:

Date: 2003

Publisher: Random House / Waterbrook

ISBN: 978-1-57856-512-2

Length: 475 pages plus notes, glossary, and discussion questions

Quote: “Leana bit her lip, then whispered, ‘I believe God has chosen him for my husband’.”

This first volume in Liz Curtis Higgs’ series of historical romance novels is an odd hybrid, as Higgs admits in her historical notes at the end of the book. She’d read both history and fiction about Scotland and, as an American writer of Bible studies for women’s groups, would hardly have had “the nerve even to try” writing epic-size historical romances about eighteenth-century Scotland. Then a publisher who’d liked the short stories in which Higgs presented her Bad Girls of the Bible as contemporary characters, to give readers a fresh look at what they did, urged Higgs to write long romantic novels and sent her to Britain to research a suitable time and place in which to remake a long Bible story about love in a horribly dysfunctional family.

That was the family of Jacob Israel, as described in Genesis 25-29. Their story is not the worst, but certainly one of the longest, of the Old Testament stories that have caused people to say seriously that the Bible is not suitable reading for children. In Genesis 25-29 we see twin brothers (old enough to know better; if the word for measurements of age is correctly translated by “years” they were in their late sixties) quarrelling bitterly over a relatively scanty inheritance. One twin marries a distant cousin after having married two, or possibly three, other women whom his mother can’t stand. The other marries not one, but two, of his first cousins, at the same time and then sleeps with both cousins' maidservants. Needless to say, the children of these dysfunctional marriages grow up to be…well, the surprising thing is that Joseph and Benjamin apparently grow up to be borderline-nice, decent men. The others seem to fit into two categories: the ones who make you appreciate your own brothers, maybe even brothers-in-law, for not being that bad, and the ones whose dysfunctions even the Bible writers can’t bear to discuss in detail.

Merry Scotland had a lot of laws that seemed strange and dysfunctional to the English. One of them was, apparently, what allowed Higgs to transplant the story of the House of Jacob into Scotland. Many readers have wondered how it was possible that, according to the Bible account, Jacob definitely preferred Rachel to Leah, yet he allowed himself to be married to Leah. In eighteenth-century Scotland a similar mix-up may have been possible; apparently the law allowed that, if the families involved had gone to the trouble and expense of scheduling a wedding, and then the vicissitudes of subarctic weather kept the bride (duly kept a good distance from the bridegroom in order to have witnesses that the bride hadn’t been pregnant) from showing up for the wedding, the wedding could be legally solemnized “by proxy.” In other words everyone would know that someone else was uttering the vows, kissing the bridegroom and relatives, cutting the cake, and so on, just to keep from spoiling a good party, after which this other person would go away and allow the rightful bride to take her lawful place in her husband’s home.

Unless, of course, the proxy had happened to be in love with the bridegroom, and sneaky relatives, despairing of getting her married off, had encouraged her to sneak into the bridegroom’s bed while he was passed-out drunk, and she happened to be single and fertile and able to claim that the wedding had been consummated…as with poor Leah, the unwanted older sister in the Bible, and with Leana, the Leah-like character in this novel. In Scotland as in the ancient Middle East, families hoping to keep the money within the extended family positively encouraged marriage between cousins.

Leana is a perfectly nice, sensible, lovable, even good-looking young woman of twenty; Higgs even gives her the blonde hair, which was generally admired in the eighteenth century, and Rose the black hair. Rose is a fun-loving, commitment-phobic, even sex-phobic, girl of fifteen. Jamie, their mutual first cousin and bridegroom, initially likes both of them in a reasonable, cousinly way. Parental pressure goads him to choose one to marry. Leana is the one who seriously wants to be a wife, a mother, and a real partner in his work. Rose just wants to have fun. Jamie is older than either—not as much older as Jacob must have been older than Rachel and Leah, only twenty-five, but still an almost modern, commitment-phobic, don’t-wanna-grow-up laddie. Throughout Thorn in My Heart (and the next volume of what's become a tetralogy, Fair Is the Rose) Jamie half believes, half tries to believe, that he likes Leana and loves Rose.

In the Bible the reasons aren’t spelled out in full gruesome detail, although more details are given than seems suitable for devotional reading, but Leah has seven children before Rachel’s untimely death. (Not satisfied with one son, Rachel has clamored “Give me children, or else I die,” and she dies giving birth to her second son. Many sermons have been preached on this text.)

In the novels the pace of the story is hastened a bit, and the even ickier part of the Bible account, in which both Rachel and Leah draft their maidservants into their childbearing contest and Leah’s oldest son later sleeps with the younger maidservant as well, is left out. The purpose of the details in the Genesis account may well have been to impress some humility upon the ancient Israelites, not one of whom seems to have had any problems with self-esteem. Moses had ordered them to remind themselves that “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” and, evidently, that the generations between “wandering” Abraham and themselves had been highly flawed and fallible mortals too. The purpose of the novels is to explore the “heart-piercing story” of Leana’s love for her immature husband, for her sweet, pretty, rather pathetic baby sister, and even for her repulsive father. So there’s no need to go into the business with the maidservants, which would not have worked in Scotland anyway. Eighteenth-century Scotland was newly and enthusiastically Protestant, such that Higgs’ characters’ not recognizing themselves in the “Holy Buik” they devoutly study is one of the most jarring things in the story. Jamie’s bigamy is scandal enough without adding any hochmagandy with the servants.

“Hochmagandy” is not the only word readers will learn in this novel. Well into the nineteenth century “Scotch” and “English” were close to being two separate languages; speakers of one dialect needed glossaries to read things written in the other. More than that, Lowland and Highland Scots spoke different dialects, as did residents of the various parts of even if you’re familiar with the Highland words poets like Burns and Skelton used, you’ll be surprised by the way some of those words come out of Higgs’ characters. The word closest to the modern English word “silly” was apparently pronounced and often spelled “seelie”  in the Highlands; in the Lowlands it was apparently pronounced and sometimes spelled “sully.” Higgs’ characters say “hae” and “gie” and “twa” like Burns’, but they also say “vennel” where one might have expected “lonnin” and “oo-aye,” just like the old French form ouais, instead of “aye,” and so on.

Well…now you know what to expect. If you’ve read Higgs’ Bible studies, some of which have been reviewed here, and/or her blog posts, some of which have been linked here and here, you won’t be surprised by her style of telling the story—frank but not rough, the sort of tone that can reasonably be expected from a Christian teacher.

Whether you can enjoy this particular book may come down to how badly a first-cousin romance grosses you out. It puts me off enough that I wasn’t eager to read this novel and don’t expect to reread it, but not enough that I couldn’t read or sell the novel at all. (The Bible also spells out that Abraham was married to his half-sister—and they wondered why it was so hard for them to have children. I wouldn’t enjoy a long intimate modern-style novel about them either.) I suppose it should be instructive to squeamish modern readers that Abraham, his son, and his grandsons all enjoyed the richest sort of blessings from God while living in their incestuous relationships, and we shouldn’t be too judgmental about the marriage laws of other cultures and so on, but…ick.  

However, there’s more to the story than the romance among the cousins. I did enjoy Higgs’ descriptions of places in Galloway, which she visited, and the farms and parties and recipes and superstitions and so on, which she researched at length. If you like the more gentle and social aspects of history, you’ll enjoy those bits of Thorn in My Heart too. The sister-love, in spite of jealousy and bickering and anger at their mean old father, is also very nice. The proto-Presbyterian religious lives of the characters are nicely handled, and convincing—except that, presumably because it would have been too hard to address directly within the novel, Higgs never allows any of the characters to notice that they seem to be reenacting a Bible story that must have been as familiar to them as all the other Bible texts and stories they cite.

You can now buy seven Higgs novels about eighteenth-century Scotland, as new books, here. Do so if you can, to encourage Higgs, who is an encourager of other Christian women writers. However, Thorn in My Heart has been out long enough that this web site can offer it as a Fair Trade Book. Buy it here for $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, and we'll send $1 to Higgs or a charity of her choice. If you buy Thorn in my Heart and Fair Is the Rose together, you pay a total of $15 or $16 for the package, and Higgs or her charity gets $2. If you want all seven of her Scottish tales...anybody who wants to lay out that much siller should hie their sel's to Higgs' site and buy them as a set of new books. 

(For a novel about the House of Jacob that's a little closer to the historical record, consider The Red Tent, also available as a Fair Trade Book.)