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Monday, October 18, 2010

Shortly after I started reading this book, I thought I recognized the standard hero and heroine of a Grace Livingston Hill novel-- the beautiful, angelic, unspoiled but well-educated and refined Minister's daughter, Lynn; the tough but sweet, good-looking neighbor boy, Mark Carter, who grew up with her but is now in some kind of trouble and estranged for her (of course they must be meant for each other); the spoiled rich boy, Laurence Shafton, who may be a slight distraction for the good girl-- she won't care for his money or fine things, but he will be drawn to this beautiful, religious girl and maybe it will change him for the better. That story does play out rather like I expected (although the characters have more depth than the caricatures I've suggested), but I was pleasantly surprised by this story: as much as it is about Lynn and Mark and Laurence, it is really Billy's story-- the young, tough neighborhood kid who looks up to Carter (or "Cart", as Billy calls him) and loves Miss Lynn's Sunday School lessons. In trying to earn some extra cash, Billy gets tangled up in some bad business and messes things up for others around him-- and as he tries to make things right, he seems to learn and finally understand true grace.

Billy is up at the nearby train station to make a few extra dollars helping passengers with their luggage switching from one train to the other, and he overhears a plan that sounds like it will earn him a good bit of money. He knows it sounds a little shady (it's actually a kidnapping, but the men tell Billy they are getting some money that is owed to them), but first he rationalizes it to himself, and then he tries to play along for the cash but do something to divert the intended victim away from the trap-- this sort of works, but makes things worse (the spoiled Laurie Shafton, intended victim, gets diverted through out-of-the-way Sabbath Valley where he is stuck with a broken-down car, and thus meets beautiful Lynn Severn; and Mark Carter, investigating Billy's poorly-written and inaccurate sign about a bridge being out where there is none, ends up getting taken for the man to be kidnapped). Billy keeps working harder and harder to undo the damage he's done, with Lynn's Bible stories about Judas and such ringing in his head.

Mark Carter is that combination of sweetness and obstinacy who, if people believed ill of him, he would feel wounded but not want to clear the record. So when he overheard people saying he wasn't good enough for Lynn, it occurred to him that it was probably true, and then basically set out to prove them right. During the events of the story, Mark is accused of murder-- and he has a pretty good alibi, since he was mistakenly kidnapped the night it happened. But he won't exposed Billy's secret, and he doesn't speak up for himself in the face of certain townspeople who want to think the worst of him. The title of the book actually comes from Dante's Inferno, and it comes up in Mark's thoughts; the most explicit mention is when Mark finally comes clean about his past and estrangement from the Severns to the Minister:

You remember when you read us Dante "thou who through the City of Fire alive art passing?" You used to preach in church about beginning the eternal life now, and making a little heaven below, I'm sure that is as true of hell. I began my eternal life five years ago, but it was in hell, and I shall go on living in that fire of torture forever, apart from all I love.
Mark reveals what he's done, and I found myself somewhat shocked to find such portrayal of real sin in a Grace Livingston Hill book. Billy is the first one who shows us (and himself comes to his own boyish understanding, with his slangy prayers) of grace: Billy works and works and goes to great lengths to make up for all the trouble he's caused by going along with the kidnapping scheme to make a few bucks, and eventually learns that he can't fix everything on his own But we get to see some of that same grace in Mark's story, too.

Some of the historical detail was interesting, although I wasn't quite sure how the time-lines and ages of the characters worked. Laurence, Mark, and Lynn have all been over in Europe for the war (Lynn with the Salvation Army-- which I should know Hill is familiar with, since I've read her book about the Salvation Army in World War I). Lynn goes in to the city for a while, to take the place of a friend in the Salvation Army (and, let's be honest, to advance the plot), and while she's there she introduces Laurence to the poor people and children living in the slum-housing that his father owns-- awakening an interest in him to do more than race his fancy car to chased after spoiled, flirtatious married women.

I enjoyed the book, and found it to have greater depth and wisdom than I'd initially expected.

Title:The City of Fire
Author:Grace Livingston Hill
Date published:1922
Number of pages:228
Notes:read the free Kindle edition


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