It was 1860 and according to that year’s census, there were more than four million slaves in the United States. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln would issue an executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, applicable to more than three million of them and immediately freeing approximately fifty thousand.
The United States was on the brink of a war that would literally tear it in two. The American West was vast, unsettled, and largely lawless. Social and technological advances were changing the way people lived and related to each other, but times were still hard. Often, there was not enough food and winters were long and brutal.
Author Jan Marquart’s fictional tale is set in an unnamed fledgling town in a part of the American West that would eventually become New Mexico. It is a story of brave settlers struggling to survive and create a new community in a new and untamed land.
Voices From the Land is an apt title for a collection of stories that Marquart contends were channeled to her by the spirits of those who lived the stories included into the book, each of which is relayed in a first-person narrative. Marquart is modest about Voices From the Land, saying, “I don’t take any credit for it. I would never have come up with those stories or the voices that told them on my own.”
Regardless of whether one accept’s Marquart’s proposition about the inspiration for her work, the result is a mesmerizing and remarkable compilation of life experiences detailing what it was like to live in that time and place. Many of the residents of the small town suffered great hardships, surviving in a rugged land under rustic conditions. Others endured unspeakable tragedies — renegades roamed the countryside and slaves moving West to escape the brutality inflicted upon so many in the South as the Civil War loomed found that they were still not safe.
Without the creative process I don’t know where my soul would go for rejuvenation because when I’m creative I’m linked to God.~ Author Jan Marquart
In successive chapters, the residents relate their stories mostly in first-person narratives drafted in an unembellished, plainspoken, and straight-forward manner that sounds appropriate to the time period and thoroughly authentic, but is almost deceptively eloquent. Some of the stories are harrowing and heartbreaking, others inspiring. Some, such as the story of the girl who wanted to be a boy, are light-hearted, yet earnest.
Among those residents whose stories stand out are those of the blacksmith, as well as his wife, who publishes the town’s newsletter and dreams of the life her unborn daughter will have. The blacksmith is a kind-hearted, compassionate and forgiving man who serves as an example for others. When he eventually finds happiness after suffering the most devastating loss imaginable, the entire town turns out to congratulate and support him. The writer declares, “It was a good day for the town that was trying hard to survive with a handful of good people.”
These stories are now given to you by us in order to give hope for the moments in which we need love and tenderness and to remind human beings about our enormous capacity to meet those needs.~ The Blacksmith in Voices From the Land
As in any small town, the preacher figures prominently in the daily lives of the residents. His stories are perhaps the most poignant, and include how he came to learned that the Great Spirit is “the spirit everywhere, all around us,” from his grandfather’s good friend, Wind Eagle. “If you feel alone go to your heart and know the Great Spirit lives in here,” Wind Eagle told the impressionable young man. Later, he taught the preaching about the Great Spirit’s healing power and instructed him that he must, in turn, tell others. When a business associate of his father’s, the blacksmith, came through town, the preacher accepted his invitation to come live in the blacksmith’s town which was in need of a preacher. Leaving his childhood home, the preacher moved to the blacksmith’s town to shepherd his new flock. The preacher observed:
It’s not easy to be the preacher in this town. Hard times either bring people to me for God’s help thinking I have God’s favor for them or they turn the other way because they think no loving God would make so much suffering.
. . . But I go to the hills and get real quiet and only then can I hear the whisper of God. Only then can I go back to town and believe I can offer anything. The whole own town rests on my beliefs, and like the other suffering men, I need more than the eye can see and the body can feel to know God exists for us.
The townspeople don’t see me as one of them. They don’t know that my faith is something I must keep alive. They think my faith comes from God. But my faith is simply the act of staying open to let God in.
Lovers of historical fiction will find themselves unable to put Voices From the Land down until the stories of those characters, along with the other inhabitants, including the Indian, the gossip, the wanderer, the man with the big hat, and the rest. The overarching message of Voices From the Land is the resilience of the human spirit and the need for communion with others because, as the blacksmith relates, “No one’s life story is about just one person because try as we might, we have to connect with people somewhere along our road through life.” Jan Marquart’s readers will find that connecting with the people whose spirits have spoken through her in Voices from the Land is an enriching, life-affirming, and quite memorable experience. I highly recommend Voices From the Land.