By Barbara Schell Luetke. QuakerPress of Friends General Conference, 2019. 330 pages. $16/paperback; $10/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
It is always good to enjoy learning, whether to learn something new or to reinforce existing knowledge. Well-written fiction—and even more so, carefully researched historical fiction—is sometimes under-appreciated as a learning tool. The Kendal Sparrow shows the depth of research Barbara Schell Luetke did, and then took the often dry and forgotten Quaker history and wove it into a living story or, as fiction can be, a believable story. Such a technique makes it easier to learn and see the whole picture of that important time in Quaker history of the mid-1600s.
The Kendal Sparrow is a historical novel about a young adult English Quaker, at the time of George Fox. The reader follows the main character, Elizabeth Fletcher, as she not only becomes a convinced Quaker but one of the “Valiant Sixty,” traveling around England to minister. Through different characters’ experiences, the author illustrates not only the probable adventures but also the cultural norms of the times. The accepted roles, education, and life journey for women, as well as traveling and prison conditions are made real through the characters connected with Elizabeth.
In addition to the carefully researched details about Elizabeth Fletcher and life in England during the 1600s, many other individuals among the Valiant Sixty are woven into the storyline. This increases the interest and credibility of this historical fiction. For the interested reader, the end of the novel has a short ten-page biography of Elizabeth Fletcher as well as a section called “Brief Biographies of the Young Quakers Appearing in this Novel.” This last section includes birth and death dates, as known; occupation; geographical area; some personal details, such as date convinced to Quakerism and spouse; and sources for this information. The “Sources” section mixes general sources about Quakerism during this era with books, articles, and specific pages or webpages, similar to footnotes found in other locations. Discussion questions, which are labeled queries, are also appended to the book and can be used by groups or for personal reflection.
For the reader somewhat familiar with Quaker history at the time of Fox, this novel personalizes not just the message of the ministers of this historic era but also the people themselves. The author uses the differences in background, beliefs, and actions of three characters, all named Elizabeth, to illustrate some of the conflicting beliefs and accepted and unaccepted norms among Quakers even during that era. The definition of ministry is not pastoral ministry but that of sharing the teaching of the Light within and rejecting sacraments, rituals, and “hireling ministry.” All appear in the novel as the characters travel in the ministry.
The Kendal Sparrow also has detailed descriptions of Quaker family relationships and cultural mores of the times. The descriptions of the houses, living conditions, food, clothing, land owners’ attitudes, preaching on the town square, traveling from town to town, and roadside inns all engage the reader. If the reader has no Quaker history background, the read may not be as smooth as Jessamyn West’s The Friendly Persuasion, but the work is definitely shorter than Jan de Hartog’s The Peaceable Kingdom, a novel that also details the history, culture, and beliefs of Quakerism. The queries at the end of the book broaden and encourage a wider readership beyond Quaker readers.