Cousin Albert held out his hand for the photograph. I swallowed and gave it to him. There were two letters in the envelope; one I knew to be Emily’s writing. I looked away. If the other was from Ma I couldn’t bear it. I’d prayed for a letter from her for nearly a year. That Cousin Albert should have both a letter and a photograph, when I had neither, made me hate him. And then I hated myself. What was I thinking, grudging a dying man the only air he wanted?
I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires
By Cathy Gohlke
Moody Publishers, 2008
I should note that this book is actually a sequel of sorts to Cathy Gohlke’s first book, William Henry is a Fine Name. That said, it stands alone quite well and I had little to no issues following the narrative.
Well, here I am, ready to pen my very first Christian fiction book review! It’s late morning; soft white light floats in from the windows behind me, and a light chill in the room motivates me to tuck in as close under my warm laptop as my legs will allow.
I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires is the story of seventeen year old Robert, caught up in all the turmoil of the American civil war. Robert is set to join the Union on his upcoming eighteenth birthday when he receives a letter from his second cousin begging him to go visit and send word about her father, a captured confederate officer in a Union prison camp. When Robert complies, it sets off a chain of events in which he is caught up (accidentally) in a prison escape—and charged as a Rebel spy. With the help of a friend, Robert eventually travels the dangerous path south, determined to find and bring north to safety his mother (who abandoned him) and his cousin Emily.
In my mind, one of the defining Biblical messages threaded throughout this book is the idea of surrendering your life and plans to God’s will for you. Robert’s desires are certainly noble; he wants nothing more than to join the Union and fight to tear down the chains of slavery. When that doesn’t work out, he holds onto the hope of being reunited with his mother. His Ma… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself. Circumstances don’t always sway in our favor, even when we feel we are “the good guys.”
Ultimately, I rated this 3/5 stars because it left me unsatisfied afterward in a few ways– had me asking a few unanswered questions, and not the good “makes-you-think-about-life” kind. One of the supporting characters, named “Wooster” (really, I couldn’t make that up) is a Confederate soldier who ends up being Robert’s companion for most of the book. He is extremely likable; portrayed as a Bible-reading, selfless, good-hearted young man. In the second-to-last chapter, he commends Robert for saving and caring for some orphaned black children, indicating he is an abolitionist or has anti-slavery sentiments. So what is Wooster fighting for as a Reb? War is complicated—is there some other issue, be it economic, loyalty to his state, or otherwise– that Wooster values so highly he was willing to lose a leg in the battle of Gettysburg for it? There were prime opportunities to flesh him out, but Wooster just ends up a cookie cutter character.
The ending, also, just seemed a little too tidy to me. Don’t misunderstand me—I love a happy ending! But when the largest obstacle to getting the girl and living happily ever after seems to roll off the path in the last few chapters, it seems unrealistic. Maybe the character could find their joyful finish despite or through the challenges of life? I can’t say more without giving away critical plot.
Criticism aside, the novel drew me in right away. It made me feel enveloped in the story as if it were my favorite embroidered comforter. Cathy Gohlke knows how to pace a story! I empathized with Robert a lot, and the author stirred up quite a few emotions in me as I read: bitterness, frustration, but also that “swelling heart” feeling of warm friendship and familial love. If she ever writes a continuation of Robert’s story, I’d be pleased to get lost in his world and time all over again!
If you read this book, I’d love to know your thoughts and opinions about it. Do you disagree with my rating? I’m still wondering if I should have given this four stars!
Thank you so