While helping her mother clean house, Talie Ingram receives a box of family memorabilia that belonged to her father’s grandmother. Among its contents is a family Bible, complete with birth and death dates for most of the relatives on her father’s side. That would all be well and good—except that there are five deaths recorded on May 16, 1848. And Talie can’t shake the feeling that these deaths had nothing to do with the Irish potato famine. This launches her on a quest to find out what really happened. Many of the answers lie in the journal of Talie’s Irish ancestress, Cosmia Escott Hamilton. But there is far more to Cosmia’s legacy than just an ancient journal—the events recorded in its pages have fearful implications for Talie, her husband Luke, and their infant son Ben.
Maureen Lang’s novel The Oak Leaves is a work both masterful and deeply touching. Weaving together modern medicine and Irish history, The Oak Leaves is a lush and moving tapestry of love, fear, and faith.
One of Lang’s greatest accomplishments in The Oak Leaves is her use of two completely distinct plots, separated in distance by an ocean and in time by a century and a half, yet intricately interwoven into a marvelous tapestry of fear and faith. Despite this, there is never a moment of confusion for the readers as to where they are, which plot is taking place, or what is happening. And whereas each of the two plots would be capable of standing excellently on its own, the way Lang knits them together is both logical and unavoidable, creating an exceptional story nothing short of spellbinding.
Technically, also, The Oak Leaves is excellent. Ireland during her potato famine is well drawn, as is England during the same time. Lang’s writing doesn’t stand between the reader and the story, and she shifts seamlessly from narrative in Talie’s time to entries from Cosmia’s diary to narrative in Cosmia’s time. She also shifts her tone slightly to aid the transitions, remaining modern and informal for Talie, but using slightly more elevated language to convey the elegance of Cosmia’s era.
All of Lang’s characters, both those from Talie’s era and those from Cosmia’s, are artfully drawn. Each is recognizable, distinct, and a clear individual, complete with his or her own passions and eccentricities, nobilities, and flaws. Better yet, although each timeframe in The Oak Leaves has enough characters to fill a novel, there is no confusion between those of Talie’s time and those of Cosmia’s. Even the antagonist is handled with care and sympathy.
Lang also handles her characters’ Christian faith with a deft hand. It is both pervasive and unobtrusive, never invisible yet never preachy. None of her characters are annoyingly perfect Christians, and their struggles—Cosmia’s doubt, Talie’s fear, Dana’s frustration—are as realistic and understandable as their triumphs of faith. And instead of moments with a great light from Heaven and a voice or a vision, Lang uses small and subtle changes, smoothly changing the characters in the same ways that real people change.
But the most exceptional aspect of the novel is the fact that it centers on people with "fragile X syndrome"—a genetic mutation that leaves the child’s mind delayed while its body grows as usual. Lang’s treatment is tender and respectful yet honest, as she portrays the varying levels of functionality possible for a child with fragile X. Writing out of her own personal experience with fragile X in her son, Lang tells what it feels like to deal with the disease, and finally brings both Tallie and Cosmia’s stories to an uplifting close.
Overall, The Oak Leaves is an exquisite book. Flawlessly plotted, filled with flesh-and-blood characters and a radiant faith, and centering on an unusual topic, The Oak Leaves is excellent reading, whether for those who know someone with fragile X or just for those looking for a beautiful and uplifting story. Very highly recommended. — Rachel Niehaus, Christian Book Previews.com
Talie Ingram has an ideal life: a successful, devoted husband; a beautiful one-year-old son; and another child on the way. But her world is shattered when she discovers a shocking family secret in the nineteenth-century journal of one of her ancestors, Cosima Escott.
Only in reading Cosima’s words can Talie make peace with the legacy she’s inherited and the one she’s passed on to her son.