Dawn’s Gentle Light, a book review by Randy Hay
One evening a little while back I decided to listen to an Ancient Faith podcast while I did my workout at the gym. On a whim I put on an audio version of a recently published book, Dawn’s Gentle Light.
The other audiobooks I’d tried on the show hadn’t grabbed my interest at all, so I wasn’t expecting much out of this one.
But almost as soon as it started, I realized there was something different about this story. The plot was strong, the characters appealing, the pacing and scene shifts were artful.
The main character is a young teenage girl, Clara, who has moved to a new town when her father gets a new job. She is depressed at having to move…but then she happens to meet an elderly Russian widow at the cemetery across the street. Some remarkable things begin to happen to Clara as she gets to know this lady (“Tetushka”).
By the end of the first chapter I was hooked, and when another week had rolled around, I was all agog to hear Chapter 2.
Here we learn that Tetushka is in the process of translating a story her deceased husband had written. Clara’s interest is quickly sparked by the story, and as Dawn progresses, she becomes deeply involved with Tetushka, and with the characters in her story. In the process Clara begins to learn some important things about life, love and God.
Tetushka’s story-within-the-story is set in Russia shortly before the Revolution. It is about a nine year old girl being raised by her grandmother after her parents died. The cast features a friend, some other family and villagers, and a remarkable horse. The characters in not only held my interest, they began to grab my heart.
I found myself looking forward to each chapter more eagerly than the last. At some point a priest enters Tetushka’s story, and the advice he gives the heroine is so like the advice a good Orthodox priest would give I couldn’t help wondering about the author. I’d never heard of an Orthodox author writing such a delightful, absorbing story; but how could a Protestant writer portray these things so realistically?
I did some research and found that the author, Renee Riva, is a well-established writer of Christian books. She had written an award-winning novel, Saving Sailor, which was published by RiverOak in 2007; while she was writing the two sequels, she herself converted to Orthodoxy, and in the last sequel the main characters followed suit.
Riva has written many novels since then, both in the romance and other genres, published by Winged Press, a Christian publisher, or her own Pink Heart Press. Of the ones I’ve read, Dawn stands out as the masterpiece of popular fiction.
Please don’t misunderstand, this short novel is not the sequel to The Brothers Karamazov. It wasn’t meant to be, and it never will be.
If I may digress for a moment, I think that Orthodox publishers are misguided in under-prioritizing popular genres of adult fiction. More people read popular novels than read literary novels, and the search for an American Dostoyevsky—which seems to be Orthodox publishers’ unspoken aim—could take generations.
Good popular novels like this one, reaching a wider audience, have a tremendous potential for evangelizing the unchurched, and piquing the interest those who aren’t familiar with Orthodoxy. At any rate, I can’t speak too highly of Dawn as a popular novel. Its plot never stops; its two casts of characters – modern American and century-old Russian – appeal on many levels. I found myself very moved at times, and always caught up in the characters’ lives: their joy and sadness, pain and rejoicing. Finally, there is a big twist at the end of the book.
While Riva classifies the novel as a “romance,” it is really more a drama or historical coming-of-age story than a romance. It can be appreciated by anyone from young adolescence on up – including those of male persuasion – and parents don’t need to worry about anything inappropriate.
Really, this book is what I’ve been looking for since I converted: a wonderfully written heart-tugging popular novel in an Orthodox setting.
While I am disappointed that Dawn has not been taken up by one of the established Orthodox publishers, I am delighted to see that it has arrived.
Its time has come, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more like it.
Writer Randy Hay is a Sub-deacon at Joy of All Who Sorrow. He teaches a popular Bible Study every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. (use the 16th Street entrance) and volunteers in St. Seraphim’s Bookstore every Sunday after our Community Lunch. Randy is the author of From Liz to Eternity (available in our bookstore) and Paradise on The Hoof (soon to be published).
Comments on and suggestions for our blog can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “blog” in the subject line.