Women have been holding their own in a man’s world since the beginning of time, and the story of hard-working, diminutive Miss Harriet Colfax who kept the Michigan City Lighthouse going for 43 years is proof of this.
In Miss Colfax’s Light, by attorney, teacher, and author Aimee Bissonette, 37-year-old Harriet Colfax follows her brother to Indiana to start a newspaper, but when he gets sick and moves away, she has no money, no job and nowhere to live. She decides to take a job as a lighthouse keeper because it does more than pay a good salary ($350 a year–a whopping amount back then), it also gives her a place to live.
For the next 43 years, Harriet cleans, paints, varnishes wood, carries buckets of whale oil up and down stairs to light the tower lantern, and keeps copious notes in the lighthouse log. She braves raging winds and biting cold, and she even experiences brushes with death when the city builds a long catwalk that stretches 1500 feet out across the lake and places a lamp at the end of it, because it’s Harriet’s job to keep that lamp lit, even if it means getting swept off of the catwalk in the process. When yet another light is added on the other side of the lake, Harriet has to take oars in hand and row herself across to keep it lit. And though the Lighthouse Inspector often refuses to send help, Harriet somehow manages to keep the light going for all the sailors and seamen who may need it to guide them home.
Miss Colfax’s Light definitely has that “wow factor.” The thought of this tiny woman braving hard work and solitude from age 37 until she finally retired at age 80 is something to admire. According to an Author’s Note in back of the book, “In all her years of service, Harriet’s Michigan City lights never failed to shine.” In fact, Harriet was so faithful in her service that ship captains called her lighthouse “Old Faithful.”
Ms. Bissonette’s prose is lyrical and sweet, and easily whisks readers back to the simple and rustic America of yesteryear that history buffs love reading about. The book is packed to the rim with details that may have seemed mundane had another writer tackled such a subject; after all, cooking, cleaning, painting and toting buckets full of liquid are not the most exciting things in the world, and yet Ms. Bissonette manages to keep readers thoroughly engaged and cheering Miss Colfax’s every accomplishment.
Eileen Ryan Ewen’s illustrations are the icing on the cake for this book. The scenes center around a dark, turbulent ocean, and most of the pictures include raging winds, billowing clouds, tossing boats or ships, and the ever-vigilant Miss Colfax tending to her light.
This book is perfect for Women’s History Month, an American History classroom, a discussion on various occupations, or as an example of the true meaning of the word “commitment.” Indeed, if a reader looks up the word “commitment” in the dictionary and happens to see Miss Colfax’s work-worn but determined face beside the word, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all.