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Patricia Curtis Pfitsch (1948-) - Sidelights

review faith women writing

Patricia Curtis Pfitsch told SATA: "I've been a storyteller since I learned how to talk, and writing is simply the outgrowth of that impulse. Children will often ask me how many more books I'm planning to write. 'I'll be writing forever,' I always answer. Writing is like breathing to me—I can't imagine my life without writing." Pfitsch often writes works of historical fiction, usually growing out of her research into a particular setting and featuring women characters who are dealing with some sort of loss in their lives but who are also strong and independent. "This is partly because of my own frustration at the doors that were closed to girls when I was growing up," she told SATA. "I didn't have the courage to fight against these proscriptions, but my characters do."

Her characters are sometimes inspired by real figures. Her first novel, Keeper of the Light, drew on her research about nineteenth-century lighthouse keepers Abigail Burgess and Ida Lewis. She noted that these women had an intense devotion to their jobs, and this informed the character she created for the book, Faith Sutton. In the novel, set in 1872, Faith, a teenager, lives with her mother at the isolated Port Henry Lighthouse on Michigan's upper peninsula, overlooking Lake Superior. Her father has been dead five months when the story begins, having drowned while trying to save passengers from a wrecked ship, and Faith has been running the lighthouse. She wants to continue to do so, but a new lighthouse keeper—a man—arrives to take on the job. Faith's mother wants to groom her to play the social and domestic role expected of women in the era and moves into town, where Faith chafes under the restrictions placed on her and yearns to return to the lighthouse. Eventually, Faith has to use her skills on the water to save her mother during a stormy lake voyage.

Keeper of the Light is an "exciting historical novel," commented Anne Liebst in Voice of Youth Advocates. While it deals honestly with the constraints women lived under in the nineteenth century, at the same time it is "a story of hope" about how women can break down barriers, Liebst noted. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel "an impressive debut" and a "captivating drama," despite a "slightly pat ending." Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman praised Pfitsch's depiction of life at the lighthouse, saying she provides "a strong feel for the wild beauty of the dangerous place."

The Deeper Song is also about a young female challenging societal restrictions placed on women. Set in Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C., around the time of the construction of King Solomon's temple, the book tells the story of Judith, who rejects Judaism, the religion of her father, a high priest, because of the limited role available to females. She joins a group of people who secretly practice goddess worship, but many of them are killed when soldiers come upon their meeting place. Judith is spared, and seeking another role in religion, she takes her cousin (and romantic interest) Samuel's suggestion that she write down the stories of the Jewish people, until that time circulated only by the spoken word. In doing so, she makes sure to highlight the deeds of strong Jewish women and to put in other pro-woman ideas learned from the goddess followers. Pfitsch told SATA that The Deeper Song was inspired by an experience her mother had. "My mother came from a family of lawyers," Pfitsch said. "She had a brilliant mind and wanted to carry on the tradition set by her father and older brother, but her father refused to allow her to go to law school." In creating Judith, she tried to imagine how her mother had felt, in a different situation that undoubtedly produced similar emotions.

She also noted, as did some reviewers, that scholars have entertained the possibility that parts of Jewish scripture were written by a woman. These include Harold Bloom, who put forth the theory in The Book of J, the so-called "J manuscript" having been a source for the written Torah. "It's a big leap of faith . . . to consider that the writer of the manuscript was in fact a young Jewish woman heavily influenced by the goddess worship—but an interesting idea," commented Claire Rosser in Kliatt. She praised Pfitsch's portrayal of "Judith's determination, courage, and intelligence." Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper found Judith "a strong character," if at times too modern for the book's era, and added, "The irony of a woman writing down the sacred stories is well developed and one of the book's strongest points." School Library Journal critic Elisabeth Palmer Ababarnel noted that some of the ideas championed by Pfitsch's feminist characters "may be historically out of place but are integrated well into the story," which is "exciting" and "romantic."


Riding the Flume has an adventurous teenager, Francie, trying to save a giant sequoia tree from loggers in northern California in 1894. Her town depends on logging for jobs, but Francie values the trees, especially after she finds a note from her sister Carrie, who has been Young Francie faces threatening challenges when she attempts to protect a precious sequoia tree from exploitative lumbermen in northern California at the end of the nineteenth century. (Cover illustration by David Bowers.) dead for six years, that leads her to one particularly massive sequoia. She finds that the tree has been willed to Carrie. Her efforts to look further into the matter and preserve the great tree culminate in a hazardous journey by log flume (a stream of water for transporting the timber).


Susannah Price, writing in School Library Journal, thought Pfitsch offered an evenhanded portrayal of the conflict that sometimes arises between producing jobs and preserving the environment. Price also praised the historical background, saying, "Pfitsch has researched her subject well," although the reviewer deemed the book's conclusion a bit oversimplified. Booklist commentator Jean Franklin, though, called the novel "a winner," with an "authentic background" and "a brave heroine." A Kirkus Reviews contributor, meanwhile, summed it up as "a satisfying adventure with an environmental message."

At her home—a farm atop a ridge in southwestern Wisconsin—Pfitsch is surrounded by the natural environment. "I'm at least an hour away from movie theaters, computer stores, and the mall," she told SATA. "The nearest fast-food restaurant is a half hour away. Out here, surrounded by wildlife and farm life, I can pretend I'm living in the olden days. We heat our house with wood, and I cook on a wood stove in the winter. I've milked goats by hand and worked the fields with a horse-drawn cultivator." When she first moved to the farm, her house lacked indoor plumbing. "We pumped and carried all our water, and I'm very familiar with outhouses," she said. "Though we do have most modern conveniences now, all my experiences come in handy when I write historical fiction. It's easy to make living in the past seem real. My office windows look out on these forgotten Wisconsin hills—this land and its history become inspiration for me, even when my setting is as far away as ancient Israel or Ireland."


Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS


Booklist, November 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Keeper of the Light, p. 462; October 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of The Deeper Song, p. 340; November 15, 2002, Jean Franklin, review of Riding the Flume, p. 604.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2002, review of Riding the Flume, p. 1398.

Kliatt, January, 1999, Claire Rosser, review of The Deeper Song, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly, November 17, 1997, review of Keeper of the Light, p. 62.

School Library Journal, November, 1998, Elisabeth Palmer Ababarnel, review of The Deeper Song, p. 127; November, 2002, Susannah Price, review of Riding the Flume, p. 174.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1998, Anne Liebst, review of Keeper of the Light, p. 389.


ONLINE


Patricia Curtis Pfitsch Home Page, http://www.pfitsch.com/ (January 28, 2004).

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