By Susan O'Keefe
Penned more than a century ago and still bursting with emotion, these words tell the tragic yet triumphant life story of its author, Horatio Gates Spafford. After reading Finding Anna, named for Spafford's wife, I doubt I will ever sing the hymn again without considering the horrific difficulties this family endured. Not only did they endure, but they chose to seek God in the midst of death, darkness, and devastation. With their faith, they wrestled. With their God, they struggled. But eventually, there was reconciliation and affirmation that no matter our sorrows or lot in life, God is in control and therefore, our soul is well.
The book, Finding Anna, chronicles Spafford's family's journey as they band together to recover from the destructive losses of the great Chicago fire in 1871. Somewhere in the midst of surviving and opening her spacious home to dozens of displaced Chicagoans, Spafford's wife, Anna, simply falls apart. Call it depression. Call it exhaustion. Call it simply desperate for a break. For most women who juggle some sort of combination of home, children, a husband, and career, the idea of a break is tempting to say the least. Anna eventually finds peace but at a cost she could never have imagined.
Discussion of Finding Anna takes place in the coziness of a Conway woman's home, who serves as the eternal host. Several years ago, she answered a ministerial call among a group of ladies in her church.
"I had a heavy burden on my heart from God that He wanted me to do something with the women in our small group in an intimate but non-threatening manner. It would be a way for us to grow in our spiritual lives and to experience more meaningful relationships with each other," explains the hostess.
After praying and deciding that yes, she would present this opportunity to a group of ladies at church, a book club was born! Celebrating its fourth birthday this year, the group averages around ten each month and reads everything from Biblical heroine biographies to Christian fiction. There are books about strengthening family relationships and growing kids God's way. A February pick presented marital tips and a hot summer romance might be a July pick.
"The book club has allowed me to read books that I probably would have never read on my own. It's made me a better mother and wife and I've pursued friendships that I might not have formed without this common factor," continues the club leader.
As in many book clubs, this one kicks off with each member giving a quick opinion of the selection. Most of the reviews are favorable with resounding agreement that the real-life characters in this story refuse to quit. They are everyday heroes. They are the Jobs and Jacobs of the Bible.
"It reminded me of 9/11 and how it must have felt for all those New Yorkers when the towers were hit and collapsed" shared one reader.
In the fall of 1871, fire engulfs the city of Chicago, making history as the October winds wreak havoc. Lives are literally going up in flames as businesses, houses, and complete city blocks are blackened and burned. Frantically, people are trying to outrun, outsmart, and outlive the inferno that threatens their livelihoods.
Prosperous architect Horatio Gates Spafford is spared, as is his family. His wife, Anna, and three daughters quickly open their doors to refugees of the Great Fire. Weeks pass. Rebuilding begins. And yet, at the same time, the Spaffords lives crumble. He works tirelessly to save the city he adores. She works herself into a state of exhaustion trying to reclaim her family that is adrift in a sea of strangers living in the affluent family's hallways, foyer, even closets.
One reader shared that "although this story took place almost 150 years ago, they still faced some of the same marriage struggles. She (Anna) battled depression. There was a lack of involvement by the father due to his job, so many of the same issues as today."
As the story develops, recognized pastor D.L. Moody sweeps onto the scene. With such an illustrious professional life, it was appealing to read about Moody's more personal life and daily interactions with the people of Chicago. The quirky Moody befriends Spafford and the two set out to save Chicago, both spiritually and financially.
In Finding Anna, readers dissect stories within the story. There is heartbreak as young wives bury their husbands who were victims of the Great Fire. There is healing as survivors busy themselves with essentials such as dressmaking. This task expands to a support group of sorts as women gather to sew scraps of material while also piecing their lives back together. Readers are cautioned not to succumb to tears over tragedies as tears of joy may be only a few pages away. Truly the heroes of these pages are ones who honestly struggle, battle, and savor sweet victory when it appears.
More stories within the story include the Spaffords' trans-Atlantic voyage. Unbeknownst to him, a young man trades his life to save a woman he earlier scorned. The ironic twist provides for lively discussion.
While the details may seem grim, the entire story is one of grand triumph. It is not a story that can simply be picked up and put down. It is a story that will not be discarded. It demands attention and energy. It is a story that causes readers to ask themselves "What would I do if that happened to me? How would I react?"
The answers may be only hypothetical but they are spawned from a very real situation. "It is Well With my Soul" has been called one of America's greatest hymns. The story behind the hymn is equally great as it adds rich understanding to words that although painful, claim victory in the One who makes it all well.