Tuesday, September 23, 2014

THIS OLD WORLD by Steve Wiegenstein - a Review

Utopian communities – designed to live a philosophy, often using experimental models of governing, wealth sharing, and re-defining the relationship between the sexes – were not uncommon in the nineteenth century. History.com states that 80 such communities were founded in the 1840s alone.  Daybreak, Missouri, setting of This Old World, could have been one of them.

Steve Wiegenstein’s new historical novel propels the reader through the passions and tragedies of this fictional, but very convincingly real, experiment in the Ozarks wilderness. As the reader advances deeper into the lives and events of the citizens of the small Ozark town of Daybreak, each short chapter ends with an enticing lead-in to the next.  “Just a few more pages tonight…”

The “situation report” of this second novel in the Daybreak trilogy comes in Chapter Two when James Turner, who has returned a changed man from his service to the Union, mulls over their rocky descent from idealistic, hopeful community that would lead the way to a new, better social order. Their once bright optimism now "seemed like a relic from an antique time." The ravages of the Civil War has left them struggling to survive the failings of human character as well as the brutalities and privations of warfare – military and guerrilla.

Wiegenstein has put faces and strong characters to the tantalizing questions of history: who were the people beneath the tombstones of a country graveyard?  Who were the individuals who filled the ranks behind the generals, preachers, politicians who shaped history’s larger events?  Who tilled the soil, built the buildings, ground the wheat of the utopian communities? How did they live their lives? What kept them going?

I was sorry to encounter one character who was an embittered survivor of a real Missouri pre-Civil War utopian experiment. Still, his bad behavior begs the question – was he always that way or did the brutal Civil War, the loss of wife, family and settlement make him so?  His pre-Civil War home, Father John Joseph Hogan’s Irish Settlement in Oregon and Ripley counties (now included in the National Wilderness system as the Irish Wilderness) was not fiction. It was a real community for a few years before the Civil War, but failed because of exterior forces – the Civil War.

I read This Old World without having read the first volume of the trilogy, Slant of Light. However, Wiegenstein’s subtle references to the earlier time and past relationships are woven skillfully into this new volume so new readers are not left in the dark, but are enticed to go back to flesh out the original inspiration for Daybreak and make acquaintance with its young and hopeful leaders in the first volume.

This Old World is available on amazon.com

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