Book Review: The Moonlight School by Suzanne Woods Fisher

  • Title: The Moonlight School
  • Author: Suzanne Woods Fisher
  • Genre: Christian Historical Fiction
  • Where to buy: Amazon (affiliate link)
  • Would I recommend: Definitely!

From Goodreads:

Haunted by her sister’s mysterious disappearance, Lucy Wilson arrives in Rowan County, Kentucky, in the spring of 1911 to work for Cora Wilson Stewart, superintendent of education. When Cora sends Lucy into the hills to act as scribe for the mountain people, she is repelled by the primitive conditions and intellectual poverty she encounters. Few adults can read and write.

Born in those hills, Cora knows the plague of illiteracy. So does Brother Wyatt, a singing schoolmaster who travels through the hills. Involving Lucy and Wyatt, Cora hatches a plan to open the schoolhouses to adults on moonlit nights. The best way to combat poverty, she believes, is to eliminate illiteracy. But will the people come?

As Lucy emerges from a life in the shadows, she finds purpose; or maybe purpose finds her. With purpose comes answers to her questions, and something else she hadn’t expected: love.

Inspired by the true events of the Moonlight Schools, this standalone novel from bestselling author Suzanne Woods Fisher brings to life the story that shocked the nation into taking adult literacy seriously. You’ll finish the last page of this enthralling story with deep gratitude for the gift of reading. 

My review:

Cora Wilson Stewart (a genuine historical figure) was elected as superintendent of Rowan County schools. She was a champion of literacy for the people of Kentucky, and made it her mission to bring education to the backwoods. School for the children was one thing. But how to get the adults to learn? The “Moonlight School” was born, with the idea being that parents, who couldn’t get away from tending to family needs during the daylight hours, could come to school at night, by the light of the moon. Suzanne Woods Fisher fleshes out the facts of Stewart’s life in this vividly imagined tale.

Lucy Wilson has grown up a child of privilege, but her guilt over the disappearance of her younger sister Charlotte has been a burden she’s carried most of her life. She agrees to go to Morehead, Kentucky to serve as her cousin Cora’s assistant. When Lucy realizes that Cora intends for her to venture out into the hollers, to carry letters to the mountain folk, read the letters to them, and take dictation for letters in return, she is scared to death. Scared of falling off her horse, of getting on her horse, of whatever creatures might lurk in the shadowed hills. And she is absolutely stricken, both by the abject poverty in which these people live and by the fact that so many adults there can neither read nor write.

The people in the story grabbed my heart much as they did Lucy’s. Finley James, the boy who isn’t interested in schoolin’. Angie Cooper, the girl who loves Finley James and aspires to be a teacher one day. Mollie McGlothin, the elderly woman who can’t read, but who is a rich repository of knowledge. Brother Wyatt, the singing school teacher with a different idea about what it means to have all things work together for good. I was absolutely invested in them and felt like I said goodbye to friends when I turned the last page.

Cora Wilson Stewart was an admirable figure. She didn’t conform to societal norms that said a woman had to be married and raise a family. She held a position traditionally reserved for men, and it wasn’t just a job to her. It was a passion. She firmly believed that education was the key to freedom for the people living in the Kentucky hills where she had been born, and she fought to bring education to him with everything in her. I would have liked to know her, I think.

And it was just a treat to see Lucy change and grow. At first, she’s the poor little city girl without a clue as to how to handle herself in the backwoods. She doesn’t even know how to get on a horse, much less actually ride. By the end of the book, though, she’s riding like she was born to it, and wonders when and how that happened. She changes on the inside, too. When she meets city-slick Andrew, who works for her father’s lumber company, she thinks perhaps might hold her interest. But Wyatt helps her to see that flash and style aren’t what truly counts in a man, and points her toward God, the All Mighty. She slowly realizes that maybe all she thought she knew – about her sister’s disappearance, about why people aren’t educated, about her father’s business – wasn’t quite right. She also comes to understand that God does care and can be trusted, and she sees that He had heard her prayers about her sister after all.

If you’re looking for a good book club read, this would be a great choice. Fisher includes a “what happened next” section, a “fact or fiction” section, and questions for discussion. As I wasn’t reading with a group, I got more from “what happened next” and “fact or fiction,” and now I’d like to read more about Cora Wilson Stewart. And isn’t that what a good story should do – inspire you to read more? The Moonlight School achieves that goal admirably, and makes me appreciate the access I’ve had to education all my life.

At the risk of sounding horribly cheesy, The Moonlight School is as luminous as, well, moonlight. It is a radiant work of historical fiction, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Five enthusiastic stars from me.

Thank you to Revell for an advance copy. All opinions here are mine, and I don’t say nice things about books I don’t actually like.

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