Everything and Nothing: A novel for now

Aïda Rogers

Posted 1/26/24

By Aïda Rogers

It’s December 1916, and along the coast of South Carolina, things aren’t right. In the swamps and rivers around Georgetown, turtles and alligators sun themselves. Snakes and fish cavort in open waters. Weirdly warm, rain is long overdue.

In town, people are fidgety. Christmas is coming, but it feels more like the Fourth of July. Beneath its peaceable veneer, problems fester.

(Photo by Aida Rogers)

This is the setting for December Light 1916, Kirk Neely’s novel about discrimination and acceptance, cruelty and kindness, God and the natural world. Written over the course of 14 years and published in 2020, its relevance for 2024 is inescapable, even uncanny.

Eli Solomon, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, prays regularly in his solitary life as the lighthouse keeper on North Island. He endures nightmares about losing his wife and baby daughter when their house was set afire during the 1896 anti-Jewish pogroms in Odessa. Thirteen miles across the water lives his friend Samuel Pringle, a former slave maimed in a lumber yard accident. Like Eli, he’s a widower, living alone. Both are insulted by the angry Richard Meade, who runs the general store where Samuel works and where Eli must buy supplies according to government contract. With his bulging eyes and fast profanities for Jews and Blacks, Meade panders to wealthy customers – Jewish and otherwise – then curses them when they leave. Samuel and Eli, who understand suffering, recognize Meade is suffering too.

Charging around these three is lighthouse inspector Roy Holden, who doesn’t seem to respect anyone or anything but the government’s rules for lighthouses. Even he, with his dangerous secret, is suffering.

Despite trauma and abuse, Samuel and Eli have found a sort of interior peace through the natural beauty around them. Eli tends his garden, his goats, his guineas, his dog. There’s also respite in the daily rituals of tending a lighthouse, where he offers his prayers in Hebrew and Yiddish. An osprey on a tall pine has become a neighbor, with hunting and fishing habits to observe. The shells he’s collected for his windowsill remind him that – like his wife and daughter – all life ends.

“What will be left behind when my life ends?” he wonders. “Will I leave anything to be remembered, to be cherished by anyone? That will be for others to decide.”

Meanwhile, Samuel, with his broken lower body and brawny upper body, limps on land but glides through water in his rowboat. Like Eli, he fishes often and prays every day. He knows about his people’s beliefs, some brought from Africa and others mixed with the Bible stories he and enslaved others were taught. Plat-eyes and hags might or might not exist in this low country landscape, but Samuel “didn’t need to believe in dark forces he couldn’t see. There was plenty enough evil in the hearts of the folks you could see.”  

That evil plays out in December Light 1916. Spurts of violence interrupt the lives of Eli and Samuel, who try to forgive those who harm them. It’s also a story of miracles, as a dangerous storm threatens a steamer coming ashore when the kerosene for the lighthouse lamp runs out.

Kirk Neely is a retired pastor, storyteller, and religion professor in Spartanburg who has written 10 books. With this, his first novel, he’s combined research about Jewish religion and history with Georgetown’s multifaceted history and lore. Well-known Georgetown citizens of the era appear: Patience Pringle, who kept her Chicora Wood rice plantation going as long as she could; Heiman Kaminski, a leading Jewish citizen; and the energetic William Doyle Morgan, the mayor who brought electricity and other needed changes to town. Samuel muses on their generosity to him, and concludes people are both good and evil.

With such a specific place and time – the novel begins Dec. 9 and ends Dec. 26, the last full day of Hanukkah – December Light 1916 might seem like the kind of book best read during the holidays. Then again, with the world so unreasonable and unseasonable now, this book suits any time. And place. As long as people are people.       

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

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