One Glorious Ambition by Jane Kirkpatrick follows in the steps of her last novel that I reviewed, Where Lilacs Still Bloom, in which she takes a historical character, and through much research, writes a fictional account of their life story. In this case, the character, Dorthea Dix, is Jane Kirkpatrick’s focus.
Dorthea Dix lived in New England during the 1800s. Her father drank too much and squandered any money given to him. Her mother had a mental illness. Dorthea, the eldest of three children, shouldered grown-up responsibilities, like raising her two brothers, helping in her father’s floundering business venture, and being a mom to her mother. Eventually, she traveled for miles in the snow to her wealthy grandmother to beg for relief. Her grandmother, at that time, had a kind heart, but instead of taking in the family yet again, she chose to send aid for the sake of the children. Eventually, her grandmother takes in only Dorthea when Dorthea reaches her teens. At that time, a woman’s glorious ambition was to marry well.
Dorthea didn’t follow tradition though. What was interesting in reading this novel was how Dorthea sought to become part of a family. She lacked a real family growing up. Even though her grandmother took her in briefly before sending her to other relatives, her grandmother was as emotionally unavailable as her own mother. Dorthea found a best friend in Anne Heath as a teenager. At one point though, Dorthea’s need to have a family outweighed other concerns. Anne Heath loses her sister when they are adults to Cholera and their family gathers together to mourn without Dorthea.
This breaks Dorthea’s heart. How many people have grown up without loving support and go through life looking to find a substitute family? It’s like Dorthea wanted to re-write her past. She even pressed to become a mom by nearly forcing the hand of Grace to take custody of her daughter as Grace slowly died from an illness. Dorthea wanted to become a mom in some way. God had other plans for Dorthea.
Dorthea would become the voice of the helpless in later years, entertaining presidents and president’s wives, senators and house members. She was the spinning top, that if stopped, would collapse and die. Reverend Channing, a substitute father, would caution her about working too much. Dorthea had a tendency to work, filling her time, so as to allow no rest, while frequently getting sick. At times, I wondered if Dorthea worked hard to fill the emptiness she so often felt because of her past. She had no roots, always traveling, always writing, and because single women were considered a burden, Dorthea had to support herself, staying for months at a time with friends, and never truly finding a place she could call home.
Dorthea Dix had a deep faith. She, like Paul, was married to God. When she finally finds her purpose to reach those in insane asylums and to change how prisons work, Dorthea becomes a familiar and admired sight to politicians, jail houses, and asylums. She had an unmatched compassion for the helpless and a gift with words; able to turn a phrase to relax a defensive jailer or to turn around a once violent prisoner to become a leader. One Glorious Ambition is a clarion call, a reminder, to the rest of us that we need to see people as human beings. As Christians, whether we are called to speak for the insane or to serve in some other way, we need to remember the lessons in Dorthea Dix’s story and apply them to our ministries and life.
Once again, Jane Kirkpatrick has written another inspiring novel that took me by surprise. It seems she is in the habit of writing fiction, based on research, on a real person’s life. The end of the novel includes an interview that fills in the blanks on Kirkpatrick’s research on Dorthea Dix. I gave this novel five stars and would still recommend reading Where Lilacs Still Bloom.
*Book given by publisher to review.