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In a Christian school classroom the day before their Gettysburg battlefield visit, students called out reasons North and South took up arms against each other: “To end slavery.” “To stop the South from seceding.” “To protect states’ rights.” Which of those loomed the largest?
With Lee in Virginia, a 2.5-hour audio drama based on a novel of the same title by British author G.A. Henty, features some familiar voices: Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Kirk Cameron (Left Behind), Brian Blessed (Star Wars), and Chris Anthony (Adventures in Odyssey). It also minimizes a familiar reason why brother fought against brother: The drama portrays the North fighting to preserve the Union, and the South to preserve states’ constitutional rights, but neither side primarily struggling about the issue of slavery.
The audio and the book have some significant differences. The audio drama portrays black slaves as intelligent. Henty portrays them as clownish. For instance, one slave does not understand why he can go west by heading toward the setting sun: “That very useful about the sun, sah; but suppose we not live in de west de sun not point de way den.” The same character insists, “Me not sea-sick, massa; de sea have nuffin to do with it. It’s de boat dat will jump up and down instead of going quiet.”
Regarding slavery, though, both works cast the central tension as not between owner and slave but between devoted slaves whose benevolent owners recognized their human dignity, and a minority of extreme racists whose unforgivable brutalization of black slaves made every owner seem a Simon Legree.
“If you’ve ever wanted to teach your family about the Confederate flag and the real Civil War, then I have the most important message that you may ever hear,” says actor John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark) in a 60-second video ad for Heirloom Audio Productions, which put out With Lee in Virginia. The ad has generated racism-related concerns that influenced Heirloom’s advertising arrangements with organizations including the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).
According to Bill Heid, executive producer of With Lee in Virginia, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and several other big TV channels refused to run the ad, saying the subject matter was too controversial. HSLDA distributed an email ad, but on Jan. 11 Suzanne Stephens, HSLDA vice president of marketing and communications, said the video “provoked a strong negative response from our members. Based on the concerns expressed by our members with this video and with racism in G.A. Henty’s novels, we decided not to advertise any more Henty-related materials.”
HENTY. That name is big in many homeschool reading lists. Becky Bearden homeschools all six of her children, currently in grades two through 12, in Woodstock, Ga.,—and the family reads Henty novels aloud. “We love With Lee in Virginia,” Bearden said, referring to the audio production and book: “It’s one of our favorites.” Bearden and her sister-in-law bought copies of the audio program as a package special last Christmas after listening to Under Drake’s Flag, another Henty/Heirloom work.
Heid says the Heirloom audio’s elimination of stereotyping, and its sympathy for the slaves, makes With Lee in Virginia a story about reconciliation and redemption. Bearden views the novel the same way and says it “portrays the ugliness of slavery, but it also portrays the beauty of love and devotion.” Her kids, she added, all understand slavery should have been eliminated.
For Marci Ytterberg of Halfmoon, N.Y., ethical and moral shortfalls in literature serve as teachable moments. If Henty’s books offer her daughters a few when she home-schools them, so be it. Her daughters read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many schools have banned for its use of a racial slur.
Glen Peterson, 55, has not listened to Heirloom’s productions but is “familiar with G.A. Henty and has read nearly every one of his books” to his son and daughter, who enjoy Henty’s signature framework: inserting a young man into a historical setting where he learns, overcomes, and accomplishes something through character development.
Peterson listed more than a dozen favorite titles while walking to his living room, in which he and his wife have hosted a home church for nine years in Redmond, Wash. Many Henty books on his shelves are “almost falling apart they’re so old.” He finds a 1903 hardcover and turns its yellowed pages, pointing out an inscription to its previous owner and notes scribbled in the margin.
Heirloom’s With Lee in Virginia preserves the character development process Peterson loves—and adds to it. The drama’s Christian producers (Heid and John Fornof, a former writer and director of Adventures in Odyssey) took license by incorporating explicitly biblical overtones—particularly where slavery and racism loom.
Most notably, Henty protagonist Vincent Wingfield, the son of a Virginia plantation owner, frees his slaves (who universally admire their master) in the book’s final pages. The slaves will eventually gain their freedom, Wingfield reasons, so better to transition sooner than later. Heirloom’s version of Wingfield frees his slaves upon growing convicted by the Bible’s testimony that all are equal as image bearers of their Creator and that stealing another man is wrong (Exodus 21:16).
WITH LEE IN VIRGINIA has also garnered criticism because it emphasizes points that Confederates stressed: high tariffs and federal encroachments upon state sovereignty.
Peterson says he “was raised in Seattle, like any kid in the North”: “The Civil War was right vs. wrong, black vs. white. … But I’ve come to appreciate the Civil War was in some ways different from the way I was taught—very complex. There was a constitutional question involved.”
Discussing complex race-related issues in their historical context helps to educate balanced children, says Idora Price, an African-American with 25 years of homeschooling experience: “I love Henty for giving you the feeling of being there, [and bringing up] issues regular people faced that history books would not touch on.” She and her husband avoided whitewashing history’s evils, without leaving out the good, “as so many textbooks do.”
The Price family lived in Virginia while several of their children were studying the Civil War, so they visited multiple battlefields. During a re-enactment one spring, two of her sons ran down a hill at Bull Run carrying flags. Price said her children “did not grow up with personal experiences of racism, so they don’t carry baggage based on any kind of inferiority complex, or air of entitlement. I believe this is because of two things: studying history in its context, not the current politicized view of history, and studying history in the context of a biblical worldview.”
Heid asks regarding slavery: “What do you do if you’re born into a culture where this sinful institution is like a tumor that is part of your body? … It’s unfair to pull people out of history, like a [Ulysses S.] Grant or a Robert E. Lee, and crucify them because they had slaves in their households.”
He calls on Christians to oppose racism, which he says only Christ can remove: “A Christian should be tougher on slavery than non-Christians. … I talk about other sins. I see racism as a sin, so why wouldn’t I talk about that?”
—Michael T. Hamilton is a World Journalism Institute graduate