Historical fiction is especially valuable when it opens
your eyes to something you hadn’t known at all. It’s unlikely that many
people know that a town in upstate New York actually seceded from the
Union in 1861 and didn’t officially rejoin it until 1946.
It was in rebellious Town Line that Daren Wang grew up in a renovated barn that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. In the mid-19th century the property was owned by leading family the Willises. Daughter Mary Willis helped runaway slaves get to Canada. Obsessed by her history and that of the town, Wang based his first novel, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires, on his voluminous research.
Wang portrays Mary Willis as strong-willed, unconventional, and misunderstood by her neighbors. The other major character is the fictional Joe Bell, an escapee from a Southern plantation whose arrival in Town Line puts the Willis family at risk. Mary’s ner-do-well brother Leander has a parallel in Yates Bell, Joe’s white half-brother who hunts Joe to return him to the Bell plantation.
The Hidden Light of Northern Fires could use more subtlety of characterization and a more believable ending, but it’s interesting as a study of how the Civil War affected the homefront, especially in a Northern town where to be on the side of the Union was traitorous.
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