Thursday, September 2, 2010
The Highlander's Last Song / What's Mine's Mine
Set in the rugged Scottish highlands in the mid-19th century, The Highlander's Last Song captures in print a crucial and life-changing era in the history of Scotland. For centuries, the hardy Scotsmen had clung to their land, working at the stubborn soil and keeping in close-knit clans. Then rich landowners from the south took notice of the region and of the wealth it could bring them. Impoverished clansmen and farmers were often expelled from their homes as the rich Southerners sought to use the land for their own gain, thus scattering the clans and changing the course of the highlanders' history.
Among those men seeking gain from the land in George MacDonald's novel is Peregrine Palmer, a selfish and mercenary man with two grown sons and four daughters. They have just moved to the region of Strathruadh and they find a culture and a people very unlike that which they are used to. Perhaps the most unusual people in their new acquaintance are the brothers Alistair and Ian-- Alistair in particular, because he is not only a Highlander, but he is also the chief of his clan. Alistair's great love for his land, his people, and his God manifests itself in his dealings with his clan as well as with the money-loving Palmer.
The two oldest Palmer girls, Christina and Mercy, take an interest in the brothers at first because they find them handsome and interesting to be around, and the girls are used to flirting. However, they soon find that the young men are not to be swayed by good looks or playful flirtation; they have something the girls do not have and can hardly even imagine-- a living relationship with God. Together, the brothers share their heart for God, and slowly, the girls' eyes begin to open to the spiritual realities around them. At the same time, their hearts also begin to open to the stirrings of true love.
Mr. Palmer, however, is not interested in spiritual realities or love-- only in the land that can bring him wealth and prosperity. This selfish desire and inner pride kindles within him until an unexpected and pure-hearted move of Alistair's, coupled with conscience, cause it to burst into full flame. Palmer will stop at no ends to get what he wants, even if it means casting people out of their own homes and disrupting the clan life; he is fueled by the thought,"What's mine's mine!". As financial and personal troubles close in around Alistair, he comes to learn to depend not on earthly things but on God alone, who provides all good things and never loses sight of his children, and he must learn to say submissively to God, "What's mine is Yours."
Knowing little of the story, I let this book sit on our shelf for a couple years without picking it up, sitting down, and reading it. Once I did, however, I quickly found it not only to be a fantastic read, but also to rise among The Fisherman's Lady and The Curate's Awakening in the ranks of my absolute favorite MacDonald novels.
I found it one of the best-crafted plots I have read of George MacDonald's. While the spiritual message is very similar to The Laird's Inheritance, the whole storyline, as well as the characters' journeys, was much stronger and much more endearing to me. Unlike some of his books that peter out towards the end with no climax and leave the reader feeling somewhat depressed, this book built throughout to a sensational climax in both the outward circumstances and inner lives of the characters. Also, the spiritual journey and the actual plot ran alongside each other beautifully, rather than running like two separate streams which cross paths every so often (which I felt was the case in The Laird's Inheritance.) That made it seem much more real to me.
Another superior quality I found in this book was the character development. Sometimes MacDonald's protagonists end up being too much like each other, and sometimes the characters are either too good or too simple to seem real. In The Highlander's Last Song, the characters live. Alistair has a sincere and inspiring passion for God, but at the same time he is very human, and struggles with pride, anger, and dependence on material things. Through seeking God and through trials, he learns to turn things over to God, and his spiritual growth is evident throughout. Likewise, Christina and Mercy are very real, and their growth from spiritual "deadness" to a consciousness of and desire for God could be true for any person. Mr. Palmer is perhaps one of the most alarmingly realistic of all the characters: his apathy towards God, his resentment towards God-fearers, and the gangrene-like effect of selfishness in his life are a very true, but sad, reality in so many people today. All of these characters I grew to know and feel for; the good characters I came to love and cheer for, and the bad characters I felt, with the Highlanders, like charging and pummeling down and at least attempting to knock some sense into their heads.
Of course, rising above all these things, is the excellence of MacDonald's use of the pen to bring the message of true Christianity to the hearts of his readers. Throughout his writing, he frequently takes a pause to speak directly to the reader about their own spiritual need, or about some Biblical truth-- a practice which would cause many editors today to shake their head, the spiritually dead to sneer in disgust, and the seekers of God to bow their hearts and say "Amen". Treasure chests of spiritual wealth lie within the pages of this book, ready to be discovered, ready to change lives. MacDonald had not that painted-glass-window view of religion. His Christianity was real, and his protagonist's Christianity is real; he came as close as humans on earth can get to grasping the truth of knowing Christ-- as Alistair says to Mercy, "What is saving but taking us out of the dark into the light? There is no salvation but to know God and grow like Him."
MacDonald does not use theological arguments to try to convince his readers or his characters of things. He realized that no end of talk cannot change the life of a person not willing to be changed. One character speaking to another, says, "I will not try to convince you of anything about God. I cannot. You must know Him. I only tell you I believe in Him with all my heart. You must ask Him to explain Himself to you, and not take it for granted that He has done you a wrong because He has done what you do not like. Whether you seek Him or not, He will do you justice. But He cannot explain Himself unless you seek Him." The same can be true for you.
I definitely encourage you to take the time to read this book. It is no longer in print, but it can be found on Amazon.com and at used bookstores and thrift stores. You will find not only a gripping story and sweet, clean romance, but also a message that could change your life-- a soul-searching question: "Is my heart fully surrendered to whatever God has for me? Am I willing to let what is mine be His?"