When he swung into the saddle on the borrowed mare at daybreak on a December morning in the year 1879, young Anson Dodge could think of nothing except that he hated his father.
The New York streets had been rutted with ice when his mother and Ellen had seen him off for the south a few days ago. Now, as he galloped coatless across the southern end of St. Simons Island, through the red gold of the lingering Georgia autumn, the city seemed unreal. As unreal as that Anson Green Phelps Dodge, Sr., could be his father.
Summary: Anson Dodge, only nineteen at the beginning of the novel and only thirty-eight at his death, came to St. Simons Island, Georgia, as an invader, an outsider, a Yankee during the Reconstruction years after the Civil War. His family owned the Mill on the Island, the last bastion of the place against the destitution caused by the war. While visiting, and learning why his father is the black sheep of the family, Anson came across a little Episcopal church, Christ Church at Frederica, battered and beaten and broken, and fell in love with it. The church had been taken over by the Union soldiers during the brief stay on the Island; they had used it as a place for slaughtering cattle to feed the troops, and then used the building itself for some target practice. Ever since, the Episcopalians of the area have had no church; and Anson decides that he is going to rectify the situation, plunging completely into it as he does into all his work. It will end up being a labor full of loss.
There are repeated references throughout the work to Thomas Carlyle's essay on Reward, which sums up this, not answer, but solution, to loss; the following passage from that work seems to me to capture the heart of the matter:
My brother, the brave man has to give his Life away. Give it, I advise thee;--thou dost not expect to sell thy Life in an adequate manner? What price, for example, would content thee? The just price of thy LIFE to thee,--why, God's entire Creation to thyself, the whole Universe of Space, the whole Eternity of Time, and what they hold: that is the price which would content thee; that, and if thou wilt be candid, nothing short of that! It is thy all; and for it thou wouldst have all. Thou art an unreasonable mortal;--or rather thou art a poor infinite mortal, who, in thy narrow clay-prison here, seemest so unreasonable! Thou wilt never sell thy Life, or any part of thy Life, in a satisfactory manner. Give it, like a royal heart; let the price be Nothing: thou hast then, in a certain sense, got All for it!
In the face of loss and suffering people often want explanations, answers; Anson Dodge will search in vain for explanations. But answers do not heal broken hearts. We do not overcome suffering and loss with explanations. We overcome them by picking ourselves up and moving on and doing something; we heal our broken hearts by letting them be used for new good.
Except for the time spent with Ellen, when they could both escape school, Anson faced the fact that he had lived through hours and days and months like a man digging in darkness, desperately and alone. Digging for a treasure which had to be there, a treasure he had not found. God had to have an answer to the human suffering of those left behind when a loved one dies. The answer could not be merely submission -- that was Islam. It could not be merely a resolute going on -- that was Stoicism. God must have a creative answer. Not necessarily an easy one, but one on which a grieving heart could lay hold.
Recommendation: It probably takes a certain taste, but it tells a straightforward story of real people in a way that brings out the fact that they are real people with the problems real human beings have, while at the same time being a story about our ability to rise above such problems. Recommended.