While most of my reading focuses on historical nonfiction, I do enjoy a good work of historical fiction—if I can find it. At a recent convention, Schuyler M. of Lady Bibliophile (www.ladybibliophile.blogspot.com) recommended Alicia Willis as an author of historical fiction whom I might enjoy. After looking over all titles written by Alicia Willis, I picked out her novel Grace Triumphant to begin with. Why did I choose this one over any of her others? This was set in my favorite time: the 18th century. When I had finished, I had thoroughly enjoyed the story. It follows three characters and their travels: the squalid slums of London, the high seas (and their scurvy pirates), upper-class English society, and even the English-held island of Jamaica.
The story is written as a parallel narrative between three main characters: Russell Lawrence, a captain of a merchant ship involved in the slave trade, his cabin boy Jack Dunbar, and English high-society lady Elizabeth Grey. The narrative cuts back and forth between these three and their own personal struggles, often allowing the reader to see their personalities, motivations, and thoughts in a way that the other characters cannot. To keep interest (it certainly worked for me!) the narrative will leave one character in deep trouble when it turns to another character. I enjoyed this method of storytelling, and it was accomplished extremely effectively.
Each character faces his own struggles, both internally and externally. Captain Lawrence squares off against pirates, storms, and the myriad dangers of Africa. Jack Dunbar tries desperately to survive as a cabin boy on a tightly-run slave ship. Elizabeth Grey is an English aristocrat with a kindly heart and a treacherous circle of friends.
While the external dangers are myriad, each character’s internal struggles are even harder to conquer. This book allows us to see how their struggles sometimes take place in our own lives. Captain Lawrence tries to make his living in the world and run his ship with justice. Dunbar worries about how he can be a Christian witness among the darkness of slave traders. Miss Grey must choose between standing firm on her principles or receiving love and adoration.
Historical details are generally accurate, with only two minor anachronisms I have found. 1) The crew of the Barbados, a British merchantman, is equipped with poniards, a thin dagger developed during the Renaissance and generally used as backup in a rapier duel. These are too early (and delicate) for general shipboard use in the 1780s.
A private of Ferguson's Corps with breechloading rifle
2) Upon seeing a breech-loading firearm in Africa, Jack Dunbar recognizes its mechanism and recalls a tavern patron who bragged about shooting American rebels at Saratoga with one. No British soldier at Saratoga (1777) carried a breechloader; however there were breechloaders at the battle of Brandywine, (also in 1777) carried by Ferguson’s corps of marksmen. See Don Troiani's painting at https://www.facebook.com/104952196246190/photos/a.104962546245155.8895.104952196246190/884035795004489/?type=3&theater. Furthermore, Ferguson’s corps was made up of detachments from the regular British army, as is inferred in the book. Rather than labelling this an anachronism, I am inclined to blame Dunbar’s faulty memory, or the length of time this veteran spent at the tavern before telling his story.
However, as stated above, these do not detract from the story—or its historical setting—at all. This book is filled with the 18th century, whether a mutineer dances the hempen jig or a highwayman stalks London’s high society. In addition, I must compliment the author for including yet another historical accuracy. While it would have been easy to blame the slave trade on English traders or New World planters, the role of African (or sometimes Arab) chieftains in kidnapping and selling slaves to the Europeans is laid out here as well. All three were equally guilty of furthering this abominable trade.
As Christians, we often feel that our impact on the world is negligible, if not nonexistent. I struggle with this often. But Grace Triumphant faces this problem squarely, and offers ways to overcome this feeling. Dramatizing the struggle against the English slave trade, the author demonstrates how even one ordinary person’s labors can change others. The two characters who attempt to reform their world are overtaken by events and dominated by the other characters. Yet we see how their efforts are used to help others. I won’t spoil exactly how this happens; you will have to read the book for yourself.
In conclusion: Grace Triumphant is an exciting yarn with important lessons for 21st Century Christians, particularly Christian young people. 4.5/5 stars.