To take care of Aunt Martha, a Mississippi family agrees to a cousin's moving in with her; cousin Howie then maneuvers the family into running a home for the elderly. Martha agrees because Lucas, a physician with whom she's had a long relationship, will come to live there. As more elders come and as they get sick, the methods (restraints, use of drugs, unclean conditions) of Howie and his hired staff become a threat to all.

Martha and Lucas are rendered powerless by their inability to make the family believe their side of the story; even Harper, the family's longtime African-American butler, cannot help. Because he fears that Howie will sedate both of them into oblivion, Lucas decides to burn the house down--after killing several of the "prisoners" first.


Howie and "Nurse" Crawley are chilling characters, and their use of power to mistreat the elderly under their care is horrifying, particularly because we care about Martha and Lucas. Because Lucas chose public health over "regular" physician's work, the town already looks upon him as slightly crazy. Douglas brilliantly portrays Martha's and Lucas's gradual loss of strength and clear thinking and how those losses affect the family's attitude toward them and Howie.

Harper and his granddaughter Lucy, intricately drawn, add richness and breadth to other family portraits. Other pressures--politics, religion, money matters, and the family's reputation in the town and the state--also move the plot forward, and several characters' unwillingness to do good allows evil to prosper.

Written in 1973 and set in fictional Homochitto, Mississippi Apostles of Light (see II Corinthians xxx) foreshadows conditions and characters that are so contemporary as to be frightening and makes us wonder whether abuse of power will forever affect care of the elderly. Lucas's actions at the end of the novel are Faulknerian and Kevorkian-like, and we are left wondering whether he is a hero or, as Howie, the family, and the town will likely say, a crazy old man.


First published 1973 by Houghton Mifflin. The book was nominated for the National Book Award. Ellen Douglas is the pen name of Josephine Ayres Haxton.


Banner Books (University Press of Mississippi)

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