A Light in the Storm Discussion Guide
- Grades: 3–5
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
"Poor Mr. Lincoln. It is in his hands to hold a whole country together or watch it fall apart. My hands are calloused and strong from rowing and working the ropes, from lifting and carrying barrels of oil and scrubbing stone floors and spiral stairs, but I do not know if they are strong enough to hold Mother and Father together."
Newbery award winning author Karen Hesse's first contribution to the Dear America diaries, A Light in the Storm, is a story about trying to hold things together. As Abraham Lincoln tries to hold the country together, Amelia tries to hold her parents together. Her mother dislikes her life at the lighthouse on Fenwick Island in Delaware. Mrs. Martin also dislikes the choices her husband has made for the family, and she dislikes his anti-slavery, pro-Lincoln sentiments.
Amelia's diary recounts the Martins' life as assistant lighthouse keepers. Aside from the constant tension between her parents, Amelia finds great satisfaction in tending the lighthouse. She loves the sea, but worries about war. Through these diary entries young readers learn about the Civil War and the conflicts of living in a border state like Delaware. They watch Amelia grow into a courageous and determined young woman who might not be successful in keeping her parents from divorcing, but is successful in continuing to love them both and finding joy in her life at the sea's edge.
"So much anger, so much resentment. If only the two sides would sit down and discuss this sensibly. But how?" (May 1, 1861). Amelia Martin, like so many young people who live with angry parents, questions their feuding. She wishes they would talk, laugh, and share good times together as they did in the past. In Amelia's mind, her family's dissension mirrors the tension and discord between the northern and southern states — the abolitionists and the slave-holders. In many ways, the slavery issue is the cause of her family's problems.
Amelia's father had been a ship's captain. As an abolitionist, he harbored the leader of a slave rebellion. When the rebel slave was discovered on the ship, Mr. Martin was stripped of his command. Now he is an assistant lighthouse keeper on Fenwick Island, off the coast of Delaware — a state wedged between the North and the South — just as Amelia is wedged between her parents. Amelia's mother blames her husband for their living conditions, which she insists are killing her. But slavery is the deeper issue separating the two sides. Amelia observes her mother's hate and her father's admiration for Abraham Lincoln. She listens to their arguing about slaves and freedom. As the quarrelling intensifies, she prays for the newly elected President and thinks how she stands, helpless, between the two sides.
Amelia stands her own watch in the lighthouse tower each day, lighting the lamps, cleaning the glass, and rescuing victims of the Atlantic's relentless tempests. Those silent hours alone in the lighthouse provide Amelia with time to think, read, and worry about her family and her country. She confides in her diary. "Sometimes, what I write here is all that keeps me calm. Putting the tumble of anger and fear down on paper gives me power over it. Then I don't feel so helpless....I do need a friend on Fenwick Island. You, dear diary, should do perfectly."
Thinking About the Book
- Why do you think the author chose to call this book A Light in the Storm?
- Amelia writes that she is often angry with her mother because Mrs. Martin can't seem to see the goodness and the beauty around her. What are some of the reasons for her mother's unhappiness? (Once you have discussed several of these reasons, look at what Karen Hesse has to say about this in the author interview.)
- Amelia's parents disagree about many things. Is there one topic about which they disagree more than any other?
- Why do you think Karen Hesse, the author of Amelia's diary, brought the Hale family to the lighthouse and into the lives of the Martin family?
- Reread Amelia's diary entry for Sunday, August 4, 1861. What was in the package sent to the editor of The Smyrna Times and why was it sent?
- Why did the author chose to set A Light in the Storm in the state of Delaware?
- What does the poem Uncle Edward copied at the beginning of Amelia's diary mean to you? Why do you think Amelia finally understands the poem at the end of the book?
- Karen Hesse explains her writing process in a Book Links interview (September 1999, pp. 54-57). Hesse says that she allows her main characters to speak to her but she also tries to find photographs of what she imagines they look like. Create a display of photographs or illustrations representing your visualization of Amelia, her family, and the other central characters in her diary. Share these with your discussion group. Can they identify each character?
- Karen Hesse says the one thing she would like to ask readers of Amelia's diary is, "Why do you think this country fought the Civil War?" Have each member of your discussion group reread the Historical Note at the end of Amelia's diary. How would you answer Karen Hesse's question?
- Write a letter from Amelia to both her parents, trying to convince them to compromise and calmly discuss the issues of slavery and abolition.
- There are some things in Amelia's life that remain the same — "constants" she calls them. What are the constants in your life? What changes have you experienced? Draw one diagram to show these consistencies and changes in your life, and another diagram for Amelia's life. How are you similar to Amelia? How are you different?
- Amelia is concerned that the lighthouse will become obsolete. Using the internet, research American lighthouses past and present.
- On July 22, 1861 Amelia's father tells her to "imagine living in South Carolina and supporting the Union, Wickie. If the rebels despise the Union at a distance, how much more they must despise their Union neighbors." Create a short skit or a TV/radio news report that demonstrates the differences between the two neighbors. Be sure to give equal time to both opinions.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.