Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light (2015)

If you recognize Mary Dyer as being one of the Boston Martyrs, you will expect Beth Powning’s tale to be a harrowing one. To some extent, this is the case.

Powning Measure of Light

Knopf – Penguin Random House, 2015

But even if the historical record considers the most remarkable aspect of Mary Dyer’s story to be her death, A Measure of Light offers readers the story of her life.

This woman came to New England from England in search of religious freedom, but she would pursue freedom for a lifetime. Boldly. Fervently.

Despite the challenges she faced, Mary stood tall. In the face of terror, she remained fiercely determined and steadfastly loyal.

“She felt herself to be poised between two places of equal, but different, terrors. Here, in England, persecution. There, in New England – wolves, forests, fierce winters.”

Even on the other side of the ocean, where she hoped to begin anew, she discovered there that she still had “no right, no power, no voice”.

“With her bow of obedience, Mary had accepted her place in the hierarchy: the creatures of the earth, plants and animals, the lowliest; then children; then women. Then men. Above them all, God. She bore like a wooden collar knowledge of what was seemly or possible for a wife.”

Beth Powning recognized that althogh some details about this woman’s life were known, in retelling her story in fiction, it was her responsibility to “put in the missing pieces” in a sensible and believable way.

Other figures in the historical record also make an appearance in the novel. Consider Anne Hutchinson: “‘I wish only to awaken people’s hearts to the search for grace within themselves, so to maintain the living spirit of our religion. I will argue as does Mr. Cotton, from the truth as given in the Scriptures. For what else did we cross an entire ocean?” John Wheelwright also appears. “You are as Protestants and Catholics here with your diverging opinions on ‘works’ and ‘grace’.”

A time of considerable controversy, much studied, the opportunity for an excess of research existed. But Beth Powning embeds her historical details in story. When terminology is not immediately recognizable to readers, she takes a moment to educate. For instance, “All summer, women gathered at ‘whangs’ – work-bees to make dreary tasks less arduous.” But the emphasis on the scenic detail, the imagined chatter while scrubbing or doing laundry.

For the most part, the information simply appears in the text alongside timeless details. “They set out in grey cloaks that anticipated colder days to come. Their packs were laden with biscuit bread, dried meat, flagons of cider. Buried at the bottom of Mary’s was a drawstring  bag filled with coins.”

And a generous amount of sensory detail makes the story breathe. “At night, when she closed her eyes for sleep, she saw the salt crusted in the corners of his mouth – his lips, caked with dead skin.”

All the readers’ senses are engaged, and because the story spans many years, there is plenty of opportunity to present a variety of scenes. “Through the harsh winter of 1638, wolf heads nailed to the fence surrounding the meeting house bore tilted crowns of snow; inside the building, the cold was so intense that dogs were brought to lie on their masters’ feet.”

Tongues and toes may taste and tingle, but the language used to provoke a response in readers’ imaginations is clean, uncluttered.

“The peepers started up in the marsh. One frog’s shrill, hen another, more and hen more, insistent as tiny hands on the blanket of darkness, pulling it up, rolling the day into oblivion.”

Many times, however, there is a residue of isolation and loss. “Sinnie’s own lost world hung in her mind like a locket the size of a fingernail.”

And as suits a story of struggle and strife, tension infiltrates even the most ordinary scenes. “The pain [of childbirth] came again and she crumpled forward. Anne’s voice was like a rope, pulling.”

Beth Powning grew up in New England and lamented that she had never been taught about this woman’s experience. Educated and independent women were not only dismissed in that time, but many were outwardly and deliberately and savagely persecuted to protect the system of power which oppressed them.

“We women came together, from hither and yon. Some from Boston, some from Dorchester. We did know Alice Tilley to be an honest midwife and no witch. We drew up a petition. Around the country, six other petitions were drawn up. We took them to the court. Seven petitions, signed by two hundred and seventeen women.”

In a letter to her Aunt Urith in September 1637, Mary Dyer wrote: “On one occasion forty-eight Pequot women and children were marched into Boston. They were branded and given to various for servants. I would not have one and was hard put to say why, but did so.”

Even when she was “hard put to say why”, her personal conviction held sway. Readers today will find Mary Dyer’s story of resistance surprising and her courage inspiring. While she found a “measure of light” in Quakerism, readers will find a measure of light in Beth Powning’s story.

Companion Reads: Mary Novik’s Muse (2013); Pauline Holdstock’s Into the Heart of the Country (2011); Lauren B. Davis’ Our Daily Bread (2011); Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (2013)



  1. Sandra August 29, 2015 at 10:48 am - Reply

    I just finished reading this and your review in turn.I think the light I found in Powning’s novel was the light she shed for me on history and the exposure that light cast upon the false and incomplete picture presented in my early schooling. I recall drawing pictures of pilgrims sitting at huge feast tables and receiving the riches of the land from its earliest inhabitants and the images and accompanying feelings of good will and brotherhood etc. etc. Not that I didn’t know about the massacres on this continent from more recent readings but the episode of the Pequot village made me realize some of what Mary Dyer felt and why she refused to remain passive. The information about early municipal organization and politics was of great interest as was that about George Fox. I loved Sinnie and also the relationship between Mary and Darfeny in England. I agree with Naomi about the importance of the section at the end distinguishing between fiction and fact: a valuable addition providing its own measure of light!

    • Buried In Print September 1, 2015 at 1:20 pm - Reply

      Sinnie was one of my favourite aspect of this novel; if Beth Powning was to consider a companion novel, I would like to know more about her (which is only stating my greed, not to say that the novel suffers for having had less of Sinnie in it).

      There is a similar note at the end of Robert Hough’s recent fictionalized retelling of Captain Morgan’s adventures (although less detailed) which also reframes that novel; I do appreciate the peek into the creative process and the historical research completed and I wish that more books included this kind of “extra”.

  2. Naomi MacKinnon August 21, 2015 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    I love good historical fiction that I can learn from, and I didn’ know a lot about Mary Dyer before I read this. So glad I read it. I also loved that, at the end, she let us know what was fact and what was fiction.
    Have you read The Sea Captain’s Wife?

    • Buried In Print August 28, 2015 at 9:33 am - Reply

      Not yet, I haven’t, but it’s been on my TBR for ages. I should, shouldn’t I. *nods at self*

  3. Karen August 11, 2015 at 2:56 am - Reply

    My knowledge of American history is rather non exists not so I had to do a google search to find out who the Boston martyrs were. This sounds a fascinating episode.

    • Buried In Print August 11, 2015 at 8:43 am - Reply

      It’s a time period that I have only vague memories of studying as well, but the novel certainly brings it to life. Whatever I might have studied as a girl, this was a much more interesting take.

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