Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Lighthouse

Title: Lighthouse

Author: Eugenia Price

Date: 1971 (Revell), 1972 (Bantam)

Publisher: Revell (1971), Bantam (1972)

ISBN: none

Length: 338 pages

Quote: “Schooners in the harbor meant money…Now, he was about to design and build a frame house for one of the town’s leading citizens. ‘My first house,’ he whispered, ‘and I’m not scared’.”

James Gould and his wife Jane were real. Enough documents about them have survived that Eugenia Price was able to spin the novel Lighthouse about their real lives in and outside old Savannah, from James’s boyhood in the Revolutionary War years up to Janie’s death in 1820.

The basic events of this story are fact. Young James dreams, in New England, of the exotic Southern colonies where he’s read that it’s possible to enjoy a barbecue outdoors on Christmas Day; he goes into the construction business, gets a surveying assignment that sends him to Georgia, and moves to St. Simons Island. Having been disappointed by his first love, he meets a more congenial young woman, marries her, and becomes a successful builder. He dreams of building a lighthouse for the island. Eventually he does.

Perhaps in order to provide a plot, partly based on hints in his real story,  Price plays up the elements of romance and spirituality in Gould’s biography. Both emotional sentiments received more attention from the generation after Jane and James Gould than they received from these characters’ own generation. However, Price has Jane fretting that James is less “spiritual” than he ought to be, and James praying and having a “spiritual” experience during Jane’s serious illness in 1813. (Facing the last page of the book, Price tells us that Jane recovered fully from that illness and died seven years later.)

Probably also invented are some conversations one can imagine Price, who was not a native Southerner, imagining for herself as she studied about Savannah and St. Simons at the turn of the nineteenth century. Gould was not the plantation type, and did not buy slaves by the hundred, but he owned some slaves. Perhaps he debated the morality of owning slaves with his neighbors, and became one of those Georgians who decided to be the nominal owners of slaves they bought to protect the slaves from worse abusers. (In other times and places, emancipating slaves was expensive; in Georgia, at this period, it was illegal. Slaves could be sold but not freed.) Price has him buy a cook at auction, and beat up the auctioneer to show what he thinks of the slave trade—but this was anything but a Humanist period of history, and the crowd merely laugh when the auctioneer falls down.

White women  were very little more respected than Black women at this period of Georgia history. Price has James hesitate to bring Jane to the island after a laborer’s wife is raped, but Jane wants to be with him and comes anyway. James orders Jane never to go out alone. Laughing and teasing him, calling him “King James,” Jane goes out alone and immediately realizes that she’s being stalked by someone who at least wants to scare her and James. James has to enforce his own law by shooting the bully in the leg. This is followed by a horrible scene in which Jane promises that she’ll never step outside the door alone again because she is “a woman now.” The notions of honor and chivalry were found here and there in Virginia, around 1800—although women were still terrorized with the old traditional line about other men not being as decent as their own, and even up to 1900 many rural women lived in fear of bears—but it took a few more years for honor and chivalry to reach Georgia.

And, as for men…the image of a rich customer beating up an auctioneer, and people laughing, is typical of the Deep South. During the first years when the land around each new settlement was cultivated, it was in fact easy for any reasonably diligent man to become rich. In a way it was even fair that men ridiculed and despised anyone who failed to become rich. The richer men in the community became “Captain” or “Colonel” or “Squire,” and they and their sons were entitled to abuse other men, who were expected to agree that they were inferior.Again, Virginia and the Carolinas had their officially recognized aristocracy, imported from England, and Kentucky was the “wild frontier” where men supposedly established a social hierarchy based on fighting and hunting prowess, but Georgia had no basis for a social hierarchy except pure, unmitigated money-snobbery. Men like James Gould, who hadn’t been wealthy as a boy in Massachusetts, accepted that older and richer men had been or would have been entitled to beat them up when they were a little younger and poorer, and considered themselves entitled, by the same right, to beat up less wealthy men now.

Readers who bring a little historical perspective to Lighthouse will thus see, not only that James is a thoroughgoing racist, sexist, and elitist, but why he is one; how close to impossible it would have been for him not to be one. Personally, I winced—especially as I reflected that, in historical fact, James Gould’s relationships with the people around him were probably even worse than Price forces us to imagine them.

Because it's primarily a story that reflects attitudes that should be abhorrent to Christian readers, I hesitate to classify Lighthouse as a Christian novel, although Price wrote some specifically Christian books and the characters in Lighthouse considered themselves Christians. I did not find it a particularly inspirational read. It's the way these people really were, not the way they ought to have been.

It's also a vintage book that's ripe for a reprint, beginning to go into collector prices on Amazon. However, at the time of posting, it's still possible for this web site to offer Lighthouse at the usual price of $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, and, as usual, you can add books by living writers (which are Fair Trade Books) to the package and subsidize a payment to those writers or the charities of their choice.