Sunday, June 26, 2011


I've never thought much about the life of a lighthouse keeper, and definitely not at all about the fact there were women lighthouse keepers.  Thanks to A LIGHT IN THE STORM, I now know a bit about what that life involved.

Amelia Martin tells about life in the lighthouse on Fenwick Island off the coast of Delaware in 1861.  Her father came to be assistant keeper there after a controversy that ended with his removal as captain of his own ship.  She lives in the lighthouse with her father, mother, and Keeper Dunne who is in charge of the light.

Keeper Dunne has given Amelia her watch beginning at 4:00 each afternoon.  Fenwick Light protects ships and other sea vessels from running ashore on a particularly treacherous stretch of coastline.  Even with the well-maintained lighthouse, vessels still become victims of the storms that plague the area. 

Amelia, along with her father and Keeper Dunne, watch the weather, light the lamps, and keep the lighthouse in tip-top shape.  This requires continuous hard labor climbing the spiral staircase to polish the reflectors, clean the glass, fill the lamps, and then light them whenever darkness or weather dictates.  During this year-long account, Amelia describes fog, storms, and wintery conditions that have the three of them risking their own health and on occasion, their own lives to rescue crews and passengers.  Amelia describes wintertime as especially dangerous because they must brave freezing temperatures to remove ice from the windows high up around the light.

In addition to telling about life as a lighthouse keeper, Amelia recounts the rest of her days as she rows to the mainland each day to help teach at the local school and do chores for her grandmother before returning to her keeper duties each afternoon.  Amelia's mother was not happy with the move to Fenwick Island causing a rift in her relationship with Amelia's father.  Her mother suffers from many physical ailments which she blames on her damp surroundings, but depression is the real result.  Amelia must often act as mediator between her parents.

Another reason her parents are often at odds involves the impending Civil War.  Amelia's mother is a strong supporter of slavery, while her father is not.  In fact helping runaway slaves played a part in the reason Amelia's father was dismissed from his duties as ship captain.  Since Delaware is a border state between the North and the South, it becomes a controversial place to live once war officially begins.

Author Karen Hesse has written A LIGHT IN THE STORM for the Dear America series.  Her easy storytelling style makes it a pleasure to read, and the history it reveals is fascinating.  After getting to know Amelia, it is interesting to learn in the Epilogue and the historical notes that she remained a lighthouse keeper and was eventually given her own position in a lighthouse off the coast of Maine.

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