All That Makes Life Bright: The Life and Love of Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Josi S. Kilpack, Shadow Mountain, Sept. 5, 2017, Softcover, $15.99 (young adult)
To say Josi S. Kilpack is a prolific writer is an understatement — she’s published three books this year so far. Prolific doesn’t always equal perfection, but in the case of Josi’s latest novel, All That Make Life Bright, she comes close.
All That Makes Life Bright is a fictionalized look at Harriet Beecher and Calvin Stowe’s first 18 months together as a married couple. The novel opens the day of their wedding ceremony, Jan. 6, 1836, and while Hattie is excited, her sister Catharine is not. Catharine is worried Hattie will her identity as an individual. But Calvin fell in love with Hattie because of her mind. He loves that she is intellectual. He loves that she’s a writer.
At first, things are perfect and the two work to adjust to married life. Two months after their wedding, though, Hattie learns she’s pregnant and Calvin is called away on a European business trip. He must go, but won’t be back in time for the birth of their child. Alone and feeling overwhelmed, Hattie returns to her father’s home while Calvin is away.
Much to Harriet and Calvin’s surprise, Hattie gives birth to twin girls, Eliza and Harriet. Their growing family returns home, and Hattie realizes quickly how hard it is to run a household and care for two babies. Hattie’s writing takes a backseat to the mundane chores of a housewife.
She begins to lose herself, and when she tries to take back control, she begins to question her place in her husband’s heart. Calvin and Hattie’s temperaments clash more and more. Things come to a head when Hattie, pregnant with their third child, collapses. The twins aren’t even a year old, and Hattie can no longer cope. Only when Calvin realizes the scope of his wife’s sacrifices is he able to meet her in the middle.
In her introduction to All That Makes Life Bright, Josi S. Kilpack explains that during her research, she found varying accounts of her characters real-life personalities. In the end, the author decided to base her version of their personalities based on their relationship, which was one of support and love. She also condenses 10 years of frustrations into an 18-month time period.
All That Makes Life Bright is part of Shadow Mountain’s Historical Proper Romance line. And while most of the time, these books are perfect for the YA crowd, this time around, Josi’s writing will resonate with a slightly older demographic.
Though All That Makes Life Bright is billed as a love story, and, based on the success of the Stowe’s marriage, I guess it was, it didn’t feel so much like a romance to me. Honestly, on multiple occasions, I found myself wanting to punch Calvin in the face. I get that different conventions were practiced during different time periods, but his complete obliviousness drove me batty.
I think my reaction to Calvin was so strong because Hattie’s experiences rung so true to me. I worked professionally for more than 10 years before giving birth to my daughter. I understood there would be changes, but I didn’t understand the enormity of them beforehand.
I am lucky to have a supportive husband who sees the value of me having passions beyond the household. But even with that support, there was an overwhelming sense of having lost myself. I became my daughter’s mother and my husband’s wife. Jessica sort of disappeared. That’s a hard pill to swallow no matter what the circumstances.
And that’s where Josi’s novel excels.
I did not expect myself to become so emotionally involved in All That Makes Life Bright. As I read, it was as if Josi had somehow accessed some of my deepest feelings. The mom guilt. Feelings of failure over the littlest things. Trying to balance it all. This is where All That Makes Life Bright rings true.
I’ve read a number of Josi’s novels, but All That Makes Life Bright is by far the best. There’s an authenticity to her writing here that will resonate with readers long after they finish reading.