Memory of Light

Written by Mollie Cox Bryan
Review by Eileen Stephenson

The Battle of Gettysburg was the major turning point in the American Civil War. This vibrant novel uses the lives of two historical figures, Jefferson Coates and Rachel Drew, to describe the battle, its effects on the wounded, and how they made lives for themselves afterwards despite tremendous obstacles.

The story opens as the battle starts on July 1st, 1863 and Sergeant Jefferson Coates leads his troop from Wisconsin into the fight. The fierce hostilities that hot day left many men dead and wounded, including Jefferson Coates who has been shot and blinded in both eyes. A Southern soldier moves him from the sun into the shade of a tree and gives him water, but he is then left alone for three days under that tree.

Nine hundred miles away in Boscobel, Wisconsin, Rachel Drew has moved from her father’s house. Energetic and enterprising, Rachel is disappointed in her dream to volunteer as a nurse for the army, but then she hears of the chance for free land for settlers in Nebraska and begins to save to pay for that journey.

Jefferson survives the battle, ending up in the Philadelphia Institution for the Instruction of the Blind where he spends three years learning to live without his sight, as well as without taste and smell. Upon his return to Boscobel he meets Rachel.

Their story is told in alternating chapters with the attention to detail you might see in a sepia-toned movie. Jefferson Coates was one of the first recipients of the Medal of Honor for bravery under fire. Despite his blindness, he and Rachel finally settle in Nebraska, travelling there by covered wagon with two small children and another on the way.

This compelling novel could be enjoyed by anyone over the age of twelve. And if you can finish it without a few tears, you are tougher than I am.