In a series of six novels, author Ken R. Abell weaves an imaginative and interesting tale set in the post-Civil War west with an ensemble cast of characters lead by Deacon Coburn. Deacon (his name, not his title) begins his life in Lancaster, Pennsylvania among the River Brethren. His quest as a young man to abolish slavery takes him away from his family, the community, and the principles of peacemaking. Through trials, challenges, and regrettable choices, Deacon ends up in the rough world of cattlemen and settlers, outlaws and marshals, saloons and brothels and an array of characters suited to the western frontier. In this wide-ranging story, Deacon strives to construct an honorable life based on biblical perspectives planted in his youth and molded by his voracious adult Bible reading and life in the west.
Each of the six books contains four chapters, which are divided into numerous sub-chapters. Each sub-chapter revolves around a specific character. In this way the story ebbs and flows, keeping the reader interested as new facts and plot lines are introduced, abandoned for a time, revisited, and eventually brought together. The shorter sub-chapters are also an effective device for creating flashbacks and taking the reader through varying time frames in the life of the highlighted character.
From book to book, familiar characters and plotlines interweave with new characters and new stories. As one plotline concludes, other stories, already introduced, take center stage and so the saga rolls on advancing in time with new adventures and creating a history for the central ensemble cast. Book six, however, only has minor developments and reads as a rather long eulogy to Deacon Coburn as he is dying.
In this character-driven series, Abell notably gives important and integrated roles to women and Native Americans, and to a lesser extent African Americans. While he uses some literary “types”—the prostitute with a heart of gold, the tomboy cowgirl, the abused orphan—he mostly fleshes them out enough to keep them interesting if not exactly unique. Most of the “good guy” characters embody both good and bad traits portraying the dilemma of living out one’s faith. Some characters, like ex-slave barber and dentist Whitey Fitzgerald, often struggle with their own sin nature and accepting God’s grace.
Despite this melding of opposing traits within a character, redemption can seem a bit too easy or pat for characters that have lived the harshest of degrading lives like ex-prostitute Delores. Even while the reader witnesses the spiritual struggles of prostitutes and even a serial killer, it appears that deep down all the bad people turning good were really good all along as if the real struggle is not over sin, but over bad circumstances and low self-esteem. Yet to his credit, Abell is ruthless as an author taking his characters through destructive trials as well as bringing restoration into their lives. Like any good author he is not afraid to kill off evil or good characters if the story line demands it.
As the themes revolve around sin, redemption, good, and evil, perhaps the greatest gift of the series is the headlong dive into mysticism both divine and evil. Various characters have visions, special knowledge, and supernatural connections to each other. The mysticism is often placed in characters with Native American roots. The visions and language heavily reflect Native American culture. Even so the spiritual origin of the divine experiences is a universal God easily recognized from a Christian perspective. One mystical engagement is a moving picture of heaven shown as a gathering or powwow of tribes with native dancing and singing lifted in praise. The scene is reminiscent of, and one presumes based on, pictures from John’s Revelation.
Throughout the books there is a blending of tribal understandings of “the Creator” and “Great Spirit” with God the Father and Jesus. Based on the author’s familiarity with the west and interactions with native people groups, the reader assumes he is appropriate in his portrayal and not misappropriating First Nation cultures or misrepresenting them.
The books are also full of Christian theology as Deacon and others process the blessings and hardships of their lives in light of scripture. These dialogues walk a fine line between being conversational and being too didactic. Deacon may be called “Preacher Man,” but the preaching should remain a function within the story. Readers should not feel they are the targets of a revival meeting or catechism.
One caution throughout the series, however, needs to be noted. Often scenes of violence and sexuality, while suitable to the story, are written without subtlety or sophistication. Even consensual, happily-married sex can be described with a taint of lewdness. Descriptions of bodily functions are often adolescent, excessively detailed, and unnecessary. As for the violence, authors may certainly choose to engage with the horrific aspects and vulgarities of human conduct, but here the writing style is too crass, overboard, and lacking nuance or sensitivity, which ultimately belittles the evil trying to be showcased. These instances detract from the story and disrupt the reading experience.
In the Deacon Coburn series, Abell succeeds on two major levels of any novel. He tells an interesting story and creates characters readers can care about. Moreover his structure of telling the story through character-based vignettes serves to advance the plot while introducing new elements, developing the characters, and creating suspense as one story line is left and another picked up. For a series of six novels, Abell should be congratulated, and personal preference will direct each reader on the merits of the saga of Deacon Coburn.
Author: Lois A. Saylor
Lois A. Saylor, active in the Brethren in Christ Church for more than twenty-five years, currently serves on the Equipping for Ministry Board as editor. Her writing has also appeared in Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation, and In Part magazine.