A Flickering Light


Award Winner

September 29, 2009 | ISBN 9780307459299

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About the Book

Returning to her Midwest roots, award-winning author Jane Kirkpatrick draws a page from her grandmother's photo album to capture the interplay between shadow and light, temptation and faith that marks a woman's pursuit of her dreams.

She took exquisite photographs,
but her heart was the true image exposed.

Fifteen-year-old Jessie Ann Gaebele loves nothing more than capturing a gorgeous Minnesota landscape when the sunlight casts its most mesmerizing shadows. So when F.J. Bauer hires her in 1907 to assist in his studio and darkroom, her dreams for a career in photography appear to find root in reality.

With the infamous hazards of the explosive powder used for lighting and the toxic darkroom chemicals, photography is considered a man' s profession. Yet Jessie shows remarkable talent in both the artistry and business of running a studio. She proves less skillful, however, at managing her growing attraction to the very married Mr. Bauer.

This luminous coming-of-age tale deftly exposes the intricate shadows that play across every dream worth pursuing–and the irresistible light that beckons the dreamer on.
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Praise for A Flickering Light

STARRED PW REVIEW: A Flickering Light by Jane Kirkpatrick. 
Historical novelist Kirkpatrick (A Tendering in the Storm) is exceptionally authentic in her use of early 20th-century history. Virtually all the characters are real figures; protagonist Jessie Ann Gaebele is inspired in this “biographical fiction” by the writer's own grandmother. Jessie Ann loves photography, and when she is hired as an assistant to photographer F.J. Bauer, she learns about the field of her dreams and also about herself, as she finds herself attracted to her married boss, who battles his own feelings in return. Kirkpatrick renders the war among desire, duty and restraint with exquisite nuance. There are no unsympathetic characters in this tangle of relationships. Bauer's wife—also named Jessie—may be difficult to live with, but she has her reasons. The period detail—dangerous chemicals used in photography, debilitating and frequent illnesses, the routine constraints on women's choices—offers a compelling portrait of the time. Kirkpatrick deserves a wide audience for this coming-of-age tale that is aching and hopeful. Publisher’s Weekly Review

"Jane Kirkpatrick has done it again. A Flickering Light is as engaging, well researched and finely written as her other best selling historical novels. Her characters are real people with real temptations and at the end of the novel, this reader wants to know what happens next."
Lauraine Snelling, author of One Perfect Day and the Blessing books

"Jane Kirkpatrick's brilliance as a storyteller and her elegant artistry with the written word shine like a beacon in A Flickering Light. A master at weaving historical accounts with threads of story, Jane has that rare ability to take her reader on a journey through time. You nearly feel the ground move beneath your feet."
Susan Meissner, author of The Shape of Mercy

"Jane Kirkpatrick handles some very difficult issues and situations in A Flickering Light. Her attention to historical detail is greatly appreciated and defines her mark on this story. I will watch with great anticipation to see where this journey takes us as the series continues."
Tracie Peterson, best-selling author of the Alaskan Quest and Brides of Gallatin County series

"One of the marvels of this novel is Kirkpatrick's uncanny ability to enter into the minds and hearts of many characters and inhabit them with authority, generosity of spirit, and wisdom. You'll want to read slowly so you can savor each paragraph, each scene, each chapter."
K. L. Cook, author of The Girl from Charnelle, winner of the 2007 WILLA Award for Contemporary Fiction, and Last Call, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.

"The dilemma of being an independent, artistic woman in a conservative, strict society is brought to light with great empathy by Ms. Kirkpatrick's compassionate recreation of Jessie Ann's life as one of the first female photographers. What Ms. Kirkpatrick accomplishes with absolute grace through memorable imagery is recognizing and honoring the eternal plight of all soul-seeking women through the story of one young girl who was determined to follow her creative passion."
Laurie Wagner Buyer, author of Spring's Edge: A Ranch Wife's Chronicles
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A Flickering Light

AGAINST THE MORNING DARKNESS, Jessie Ann Gaebele quietly litthe stubby candle. Its feeble light flickered at the mirror while she dressed. She pulled her stockings on, donned her chemise, debated about a corset, decided against it. She’d make too much noise getting it hooked. No one was likely to see her this morning anyway, and she’d be back before her mother even knew she’d left the house without it. She could move faster without a “Grecian Bend,” as ladies magazines called the posture forced by the stays and bustle. She guessed some thought it an attractive look for a girl in 1907, emphasizing a small waist and a rounded derrière. Jessie claimed both but had little time for either that morning, and timing mattered if she was to succeed. If Jessie didn’t catch the moment, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

She spilled the dark linen skirt over her petticoat, letting it settle at her slender frame. She inhaled the lavender her sister Selma insisted be added when they made their own soap, something they did more often now since they’d moved to Winona, Minnesota. Selma was prone to sensuous scents; sensuous music too, her husky voice holding people hostage when she sang.

Jessie looked at her sleeping sisters. The candlelight cast shadows on the tousled hair of Selma, her younger sister, and on the nightcap that Lilly, her older sister, always wore. (“It will keep you from catching vapors in the night,” Lilly claimed). Jessie pulled on the white shirtwaist. Even in sleep they reflected who they were when awake: Selma, dreamy and romantic; Lilly, organized and right. Always right. Jessie slept somewhere between them, literally. In life she guessed she had a bit of both of those girls’ practices in her. Selma would approve of Jessie’s morning goal for its dreamy adventure; Lilly wouldn’t. But Jessie’d organized it as Lilly would, leaving little to chance. She’d walked the route, knew the obstacles. She anticipated what she’d find when she got there. If she could make it on time.

Luckily there were only five buttons down the back of her blouse, close to the high neck. She considered waking Selma to help her button them but decided against it. Selma would want the details and wake up Lilly, who would question her judgment. Jessie would not lie. Lilly would point out how ridiculous she was being, rising early and setting out for such foolishness when she had an important appointment in the day ahead. “That should be your emphasis,” Lilly would say. She spoke as though she were Jessie’s mother. Oh, she meant well; older sisters did. That’s what her mother told her. But still, Jessie was tired of having every person in the family older than she considered wiser and worldlier too.

So Jessie reached back and buttoned the blouse herself, then centered a beaded-buckle belt on her tiny fifteen-year-old waist. Hat or no hat? Going out in public without her hat would be too casual. Someone just might question what she was doing or, worse, remember and tell her mother. She could get by without the corset, but she’d best wear the hat.

She tossed a shawl around her shoulders, grabbed her shoes, then dropped one by mistake. She held her breath, hoping no one would wake. She blew out the candle and waited.

“Go back to sleep, Selma.”
“What are you up to?”
Jessie moved to her sister’s side of the bed and whispered,
“Don’t wake Lilly, all right? It’s a secret. Can you keep a secret?”Her sister nodded. “I’m going on an adventure.”
“Can I come too?”
“Not this time. But I’ll tell you all about it after you get home from school. Just don’t tell, please? If Mama asks, just say you don’t know. Because you don’t.”
“Is it about a beau?”
“You read too many of those stories in Woman’s Home Companion.
No boys. Nothing like that.”
“I better tell Mama.” She pushed the quilt back onto the empty space where Jessie had slept. “She won’t like you going off by yourself in the night.”
“No!” Jessie looked at Lilly to see if her loud whisper had awakened her.
“It’s nothing. I’ll be back before breakfast.”
“All right. But you’ll tell me everything?”
“Everything necessary,” Jessie said.

Her sister settled back under the quilt, and Jessie picked up her shoe. She’d nearly crippled her adventure before it even started! Shetiptoed past Roy’s room with special quietness, careful of the oak floor that creaked at a certain place near the head of the stairs. Roy had hearing like their mother’s. That woman could tell when any of them squabbled in the bedroom over a hair piece even when she was outside in the yard, hanging up clothes on the far side of the house while the wind blew! Sadness bordered Jessie’s thoughts of her little brother like a photographic frame. Jessie slipped past his room, past her parents’ door, out onto the porch with the swing, and sighed relief.

Outside, Jessie inhaled the morning. Late March and the promise of an early spring. Not long before flowers would poke their heads up through the crusty Minnesota ground. She heard a steamship whistle bawling its presence at Winona’s docks along the Mississippi. The shawl would be enough to ward off the cold once she started walking, and the promised sun would warm her up when she stood still.Within an hour, dawn would offer up its gift but would wait for only a few seconds for Jessie to receive it. After that, the shapes she wanted to capture would change, and soon the snow would be gone, the city would stop the burning, and she’d have to wait another year. She had little time to spare. She couldn’t be late today.

On the porch steps, she pulled on her high-button shoes, then grabbed the heavy leather bag from behind the porch latticework, where she’d placed it the night before. Her uncle August Schoepp had given her the bag and its precious cargo just last year, she supposed in memory of their time at the St. Louis World’s Fair. It was her treasure. She drew the strap over her shoulder, centered the weight on her right hip, then set off, holding the bag out to prevent the bruises it often left behind. The corset might have been a help to support her back against the bag, but it was too late to think of that now.

She set a fast pace on Broadway, liking the feel of the new concrete solidness pounding up through her slender legs. She crossed the street, kept walking. Pigeons flew from the rooftop of the Winona Hotel. Pancakes of dirty snow exposed themselves in the shaded window wells. The clank of railroad cars connecting and departing at the repair yards broke the morning calm. Against the gas streetlights, fingers of elm and maple branches rose before her. There’d be buds on them before long, and the maple sap would drip like dark honey down the trunks, making a rich contrast of brown on black.

She turned the corner, walked several more blocks, then at the lamplight flickering in the bicycle shop’s window, Jessie grinned. Mr. Steffes had remembered. He was not a founder of the city, but he’d been around to see many of its changes while running his cycle livery and dealership and doing repair work on the side.

A bicycle leaned against the framed wall. Maybe he meant for her to just take it. It would certainly save time. But he might have left it for someone else. She’d better go in and check.

Jessie stepped inside, the small bell above the door announcing her arrival. She scanned the room. “Mr. Steffes? I’m here. Is the bicycle outside the one you meant for me to take?” The silence felt heavy. The shop smelled of sawdust, the kind brushed onto the wooden floors to soak up grease and oil. It was awfully cluttered. And still. “Mr. Steffes?” Jessie swallowed. “Remember? I left you a nickel for the use of the bicycle this morning. I said I’d come early.”

She stumbled over a bucket filled with rags. Maybe she could earn the five cents back by offering to clean up this place. That thought made her cringe. Her mother would not be pleased to know she’d spent a nickel of her own hard-earned dollars from the book bindery on something frivolous like a bicycle rental, especially because she’d recently been released from the bindery. There was little money to spare with her father’s illness, which the doctors couldn’t name or fix. He had so much pain that they’d had to leave their Wisconsin dairy farm near Cream and move across the Mississippi into Winona, where the girls could find employment and they could be closer to the doctors. Her father eventually worked in the dray business and drove a team to make deliveries, but they all worried over him, her mother and brother and sisters, fearing he might have one of his episodes and suffer excruciating stomachaches that couldn’t be stopped without laudanum and rest.

Prickles of uncertainty clustered at her temples.This morning’s ride was important too, important for Jessie. If somehow her mother found out she’d spent the money, she’d just have to convince her that it was for a worthy cause—though how she’d do that she wasn’t sure. When she tried to explain this recent pull on her, this desire that came over her, the words came out as flat as a knife and not nearly as sharp.

She’d deal with that later. Jessie pushed her spectacles up on her nose, set her shoulders, and took a forward step, moving past the shadow ghosts of bicycles and what appeared to be one of those new ringer washers in need of repair. Her skirt caught on a bicycle seat. When she straightened, she saw a sliver of light, a thin string that marked the bottom of a back room door. Had it just come on?

“Mr. Steffes, I don’t mean to bother you, but it’s Jessie Gaebele and I was hoping I could just—”

She heard a groan, then what sounded like scuffling followed by a thump.

She readied herself for someone to come charging through the door.When that didn’t happen, she listened to her throbbing heart, swallowed, then pushed the door open to face this complication of her day.

Portraits of the Heart Series

An Absence So Great
A Flickering Light

About the Author

Jane Kirkpatrick
Jane Kirkpatrick is a bestselling, award-winning author whose previous historical novels include All Together in One Place and Christy Award finalist A Tendering in the Storm. An international keynote speaker, she has earned regional and national recognition for her stories based on the lives of actual people, including the prestigious Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Hall of Fame. Jane is a Wisconsin native who since 1974 has lived in Eastern Oregon, where she and her husband, Jerry, ranch 160 rugged acres. More by Jane Kirkpatrick
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