Written in the late 1800s by a woman who called herself E.D.E.N. Southworth, the book titled Ishmael is a timeless Christian tale — and likely one you’ve never heard of.
The book highlights the Christian values of strength and perseverance against the adversity faced in a broken world, with hope that ultimately, His plan is a good one.
Our hero, Ishmael, is not born into promising circumstances.
His young parents, expecting his arrival, seem to have created a fanciful little dream world for their son, but as it often happens, the reality of a broken world breaks through and this dream world suddenly implodes.
Childish, beautiful, and lovable, Nora fell for the charms of her handsome, generous, and wealthy landlord, Herman, who also finds himself hopelessly in love with this humble cottage girl.
However, Herman’s family does not share his generous, humble spirit, and the newlyweds agree to keep their union a secret, until Nora has won the affection of her mother-in-law.
This proves to be a task easier said than done, however, and Nora grows weary with the pretense, while Hannah’s distrust of her brother-in-law grows.
Despite the dire warnings and serious qualms of Nora’s sister and guardian, Hannah, Nora pines after her lover, and Hannah reluctantly gives in to the marriage at last.
Then the deception Hannah feared seems to rear its ugly head.
A young woman shows up at the manor house claiming to be Herman’s wife.
Nora is inadvertently there to hear those terrible words, and, her abdomen swollen with her unborn child, she deliriously stumbles back through the snowy hills towards her family’s home.
When she does not arrive, Hannah anxiously sends for help, finds Nora in the pangs of grief and brings her home to give birth to a sickly son. Tragically, Nora dies in child birth.
Herman shows up looking haggard and grief-stricken just in time to bid his wife “goodbye” forever, and then vanish, apparently without so much as leaving anything of his wealth with his destitute little son.
Hannah, broken by her beloved little sister’s death, feels little but resentment for the tiny, premature babe for which she is now seemingly responsible. But when the little boy beats all odds and clings to life, she begins to cherish him.
Sometimes our plans are not God’s plans, but we can trust that God’s plans are good plans.
Ishmael is from the first, a unique boy. Deep thinking, intuitive, and mature beyond his years, he has a passionate thirst to learn, a driving desire to do good, and Hannah provides him with the opportunity to learn from a jack of all trades.
Despite his unpromising origin, Ishmael’s rise to success begins early.
As a reward for being the only one daring enough to save two boys from a burning house, Ishmael’s new landlord places him in the private school with his own children. The young man has never been so happy in his life. He is an avid learner and quickly becomes the top student.
But education is not the only love he finds in this new phase of life.
As Ishmael grows older, he becomes infatuated with the landlord’s motherless young niece from their first meeting. Poor Hannah is terribly distressed. She fears it is the second woeful verse of the same devastating song.
Indeed, it seems that Ishmael’s heart is destined to be broken, just as his mother’s was.
Claudia dotes on him, but thinks of him as no better than a pet animal. She grows to love him as she gets older., but she cannot lower her proud spirit to a marriage union with a commoner.
Yet, just as God does with our lives, the author designs to use the hardships of Ishmael’s young life to create him into a full-bodied, mature character.
Throughout much of the book, Ishmael’s father, Herman, seems to have all but dropped off the face of the earth.
This leads the reader to sympathize more and more with Hannah, especially as, in an unexpected addition to the plot, the reader learns the story of Herman’s other wife, Berenice, from her perspective, and grows to love and pity her as a bereaved, loving, unloved, kind and lonely young woman.
The questions mount as the pages turn.
Will Ishmael realize Claudia does not truly care for him, or will he keep giving his heart away to her instead of to one worthy of it? Will he succeed in his pursuit of a law career? Will Claudia’s eyes ever be opened, or will she continue on the foolish path of haughty self-destruction?
Will Hannah ever allow herself to be freely loved by her faithful, simple fiancé, and give up her self-sufficiency to marry him? Will Herman ever claim his son? Will Berenice and Herman reunite? Will Ishmael ever be able to reign in his boyish, impetuous passions of love?
But to tell you the answers to these questions would spoil your appetite.
So, I choose to keep your mouth watering until you’ve found them out yourself. Only be forewarned.
Ishmael is a character who lives on in your memory long after the book has been closed.
He is lovable and inspiring, in that he has real passions, struggles, griefs, and choices, which serve to shape him into a man worth admiration and exemplification, and yet he is able to be identified with in that he is far from perfect.
This story is enjoyable, riveting, amusing, heartbreaking, exhilarating, and thrilling in turns.
It is, of course, imperfect, and yet perhaps there is something to that which leaves one so satisfied and thoughtfully inspired upon having read this book penned so many years ago.
Purchase a copy of Ishmael yourself and enjoy this unknown classic today.