The Gown of Glory – Agnes Sligh Turnbull

A historical novel about a village minister, his family, and the everyday humor and drama of life in their small, adopted community. 1951.

What a thoroughly lovely book! This is actually the second Turnbull novel I’ve read (the other novel, The Wedding Bargain, was wonderful, just got lost in the reading/blogging shuffle—review is in the works!). If you’ve read a Turnbull novel, I’d love recommendations on which one to try next.

The Gown of Glory opens with a prologue: sometime in the late 1800s, a young Presbyterian minister arrives in the small, midwestern town of Ladykirk, with his new, young wife by his side. David and Mary do their best to settle into the designated minister’s house. It’s a faded, clapboard house that comes with mice and lacks an indoor bathroom—hardly the dream house for a young couple starting a new life and career. “We’ll be here in Ladykirk about five years, no longer,” they tell themselves.

Twenty-five years go by, though, and not only are David and Mary still living in Ladykirk, but the house is even more faded and dated. Now, they also have three nearly-grown children. Jeremy, the eldest, is destined for university and the ministry, but first he must save up for tuition by selling books door-to-door. Faith is the artistic and intellectual middle child who’s often overlooked, and appears to be resigned to the life of a farmer’s wife, unless she can somehow break free of village life. Lucy, the youngest, is pretty and unreserved in her enthusiasm for life.

The first event we witness is the unexpected arrival of a young man at the family house. Lucy, seeing him passing on the sidewalk, jumps to the conclusion that he is selling books (like her brother) and rushes out to meet him:

“I’m so dreadfully sorry to do this,” she began to the astonished young man, “but would you mind too much not stopping at our house? To see Father, that is. You see we’re trying so hard just now to save up for a special purpose and father can’t resist books. They’re his weakness. And now, especially since Jeremy, my brother, is out selling The Volume of Golden Deeds, Father feels he must buy from every other agent who comes. And of course since he’s a minister they all come to him!”

The young man can hardly get a word in to correct Lucy. We see that he’s clearly not a bookseller but just a stranger passing by–and yet, much like this young man, we cannot resist the charm of Lucy and her endearing haste. I don’t feel like I’m giving too much away by saying that the ensuing romance between these two young people ends up forming the backbone of the novel’s story arc.

The Gown of Glory is fundamentally a story in which good things happen to good people (even if those good things are long time in coming). And yet the novel also contains heavier themes, with sub-plots such as babies born out of wedlock, alcoholism that affects numerous villagers, and the ominous arrival of the coal industry nearby.

The theme I found to be the most compelling, though, was the inner struggle of the minister himself. Over the years, again and again, David and his wife repeatedly get their hopes up about being called to serve in a larger community. Again and again, these hopes have yet to come to anything.

This disappoints both him and his wife, as they blame his lack of evangelical spirit for their being stuck in Ladykirk village. David has never been the “fire and brimstone” sort of breacher. (In fact, his best friend in the village is apparently the town’s only atheist.) Instead, David is a scholar and believer in moderation, support, and forgiveness—which only endears him to this reader even further. The Gown of Glory seems to be suggesting that although someone may go their whole life and never receive accolades, they can still be an immensely influential person to those they touch.

The Gown of Glory is the kind of novel that I can recommend without any reservations. The story flows along seamlessly, from one domestic or village episode to the next. Totaling fewer than 300 pages, it’s also fairly densely packed—and yet, I bet you’ll do your very best to savor it.

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