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A Measure of Light by Beth Powning

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Though it was published in the early spring of 2015, I did not read Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light until this fall. I hesitated for a long time, began it once, but could not continue. Why? Because Mary Dyer, the heroine of the novel, is also, my family believes, our ancestor. I grew up with the story that Mary Dyer was put to death in Salem, Massachusetts – either by drowning or hanging, depending on the storyteller – because she was considered to be a witch. I now suspect, if we assume that Beth Powning has her facts straight (of which I have no doubt) that the family story is far from correct. And, in fact, Mary Dyer’s story was a much more complicated one than I had imagined.

Mary and William Dyer were Puritans who left England in the mid 1630s to escape religious persecution. Their beliefs were strictly observed, with absolute obedience to the dictates of their religion – break any one of the Ten Commandments and you’d be put to death. They sailed from Plymouth to Boston to begin a new life, in a new land.

Mary’s first-born son died in England when he was only a few days old. Her second son, Samuel, survived. But a third pregnancy resulted in the tragic pre-mature birth of a daughter, anencephalic. The superstitions of the time had some in the community claiming that the child was a monster – begat by the devil and Mary a sinner.

Mary was also, at this time, becoming increasingly unpopular with the clergy and other powerful men in the community. Women “had no right to question” but Mary and her friend Anne Hutchinson did question. Anne was intelligent, articulate and a leader among the women in her community. Excommunication was threatened - a serious charge, as one would be “rejected from God and delivered to Satan”. Striving for a safer, less restrictive place to live the Dyer family and others left for Providence to begin again.

More children were born to Mary and William, another home built and another life established. Mary struggled to find her place. From today’s perspective I’d guess that Mary suffered from post-partum depression – she hated the demands of motherhood, and always feared having another child die – or even worse another with a birth defect. Baby after baby, she could not find it within herself to love them as she knew she should.

Mary was searching for meaning in her life and was vulnerable to the influence of religious extremism – and she found it with the Quakers. The Quakers believed that “God is in all”, that there was no need for a church, and that they were very much on a mission of bringing all into their faith as “Children of Light”. They also believed that men and women were equal in the eyes of God. For Mary this answered all of her needs and she was ready to sacrifice herself, her only desire to prove that she was in the right and that no man, no community had the right to deny her – even on the threat of death. Somehow, I found this story, probably very much the truth of the life of Mary Dyer, more disturbing than the idea that she’d been unjustly accused of being a witch!

A Measure of Light, no matter what your personal beliefs, provides a fascinating view of a world I certainly knew nothing about. Though the novel takes place in what is now the United States of America, many of the Quakers later left Massachusetts for Nova Scotia, moving as they had before seeking freedom of religious expression.

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