Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires

Hidden LightEvery now and then, an historical novel comes along that casts a harsh light into a dark and unfamiliar corner of our past. The Hidden Light of Northern Fires is just such a work.

Daren Wang’s story opens in the winter of 1861. Like any compelling story, it introduces us to complicated characters striving against adversaries without and demons within.

Joe Bell is a runaway slave pursued by Northern bounty hunters and his obsessed and homicidal former master. His route brings him to the tiny hamlet of Town Line, New York, a bastion of pro-Southern sentiment on the doorstep of Canada and the elusive prize of freedom. Along his journey, Joe carries with him deep pangs of guilt for leaving his sister, Alaura, alone to the mercies of their owner and half-brother, Yates Bell.

Bleeding from a festering dog bite, Joe happens upon the farm of Nathan Willis, where he is taken in by Willis’ daughter, Mary. Mary, an historical figure with a fascinating biography, is a courageous abolitionist and pioneering feminist. When we meet her, she is already a controversial figure in her community for her unwillingness to become the property of a prospective husband, most of whom have far less education than she. Mary’s efforts to save Joe from murderous copperheads and corrupt local officials put her family and friends in unimaginable peril.

Wang’s story is as unsparing in portrayal of racial injustice as it is beautiful in its prose. We see this in his treatment of bigotry ranging as far north as Ontario, where fugitives must confront smoldering resentment from unemployed workers and the existential threat of capture by Confederate spies.

The narrative and crisp dialog move through three hundred pages at breakneck speed, leaving the sleepless reader yearning for just one more chapter before turning in.

As a child, Wang grew up in Town Line, where he developed a fascination for Mary Willis and the story of the community’s brazen secession from the Union. An award-winning journalist, Wang is also founder of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s annual Decatur Book Festival and has served as its executive director.