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Foreward Reviews:

Rekindled is an insightful account of early American thinking regarding the separation of church and state.

Early American colonists fleeing religious oppression in England grapple with deep questions of church and state separation inRekindled, Teresa Irizarry’s richly philosophical historical novel about personal struggle and community renewal.

Rekindled follows a fictionalized Roger Williams, who in real life founded both the colony of Rhode Island and the Baptist Church in America in the mid-1600s. The story takes Williams from his apprenticeship while a teenager as a scribe for a London lord, through college at Pembroke and marriage, to his decision to emigrate and become a minister in America. He preached to colonists and Native Americans, and was banished from Boston for refusing to conform his preaching to civil edicts. From there, he founded a new settlement that ultimately became Rhode Island.

Rekindled follows a cast of nearly two hundred other characters, including colonists, monarchs, church and government authorities in England and in the colonies, and Native Americans from a host of different tribes. Most characters are based on actual historical figures, while a few are entirely fictional; all are listed alphabetically in an extensive appendix.

The author attempts, for most characters, to offer light to moderate details about their life and lineage, which results in a lot of genealogical-type information as births, deaths, illnesses, settlement hardships, and Atlantic crossings are recounted. Irizarry is to be commended for attempting to lay out the big picture of how a broad assortment of people stood up for what they believed, fought bitterly against those who sought to muzzle their religious expression, and ultimately became unified on this side of the Atlantic. Yet it’s difficult to follow the identities of several hundred characters. The story arc could also have been better defined, with a more recognizable climax.

The author clearly knows her colonial-era history and presents it in deep, scholarly detail. The book succeeds best at laying out the arguments for why those who left England for the colonies said government shouldn’t control how they prayed, what ministers preached, and how and where they assembled for worship. “I have no desire to be an agent of a church that would let any king but Christ rule over it,” Roger Williams explains to an associate in 1631, after declining a job as a minister in Boston, where locally-backed English law restricted what he could preach.

Long, weighty conversations and letters between Roger Williams and other characters about their views on religious freedom are, ultimately, what is interesting in Rekindled. The presentation of these views takes the book beyond characters’ family trees to the ideas that led colonists like Roger Williams to fight for free churches and to make the personal sacrifices required to establish them.

Despite its flaws as a novel, Rekindled is an insightful account of early American thinking.

Blue Ink Review:

Teresa Irizarry’s impeccably researched debut historical novel, Rekindled, explores how Roger Williams introduced the principle of separation of church and state by founding Rhode Island as a place of religious tolerance.

The novel’s beginning chapters alternate between England and New England in the early 17th century. Williams is a promising language student and law clerk but desires to spread the Gospel overseas: “I am determined to become a serious student of God’s spiritual algebra and learn how to apply it to the new cultures we find in America,” he writes to a friend. To that end, he studies theology at Cambridge.

Meanwhile, portions set in New England show Algonquian Indian tribes setting up a wampum factory and fighting against the English. When Williams accepts a position in Salem, he begins studying the Algonquian language and develops deep respect for their culture. Because he doesn’t view them as “heathens,” he decides they shouldn’t have to adhere to biblical customs. Williams’ several-weeks journey through a blizzard to find an Algonquian encampment, as he runs from a summons to appear in court on charges of sedition and heresy, is one of the plot highlights.

Irizarry fills the decades-spanning storyline with familiar historical figures such as Walter Raleigh, John Milton, and Anne Hutchinson. Through period detail, she renders each location—from Newgate prison to Massachusetts settlements—authentic. However, at times evidence of research is heavy-handed, as in multiple pages on wampum trading. Her use of some modern slang (“wimp” ; a “hot potato” issue) is also jarring.

Appendices include a character list and excerpts of Williams’ writings, both of which are helpful. But the Prologue set in 48 AD and a final section in which a modern Christian interviews Williams in heaven (asking if he supports gay marriage, for instance) distract from the central story.

Nevertheless, this is an absorbingly detailed portrait of 17th-century Christendom. As an early proponent of American religious freedom, Williams is worth celebrating.

Highly recommended for fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Geraldine Brooks’s Caleb’s Crossing.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.

 

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