A Light in the Dark Essay - Critical Context

Milton Meltzer

Critical Context

Almost all of Meltzer’s books deal with social activists, people who stand up and fight for their ideas. Among others, Meltzer has explored the lives of Winnie Mandela, Betty Friedan, Langston Hughes, Margaret Sanger, and Thaddeus Stevens. As with many of Meltzer’s subsequent biographies, A Light in the Dark celebrates those who battle racial and political oppression. The book also blends carefully documented facts with enough fictionalized narrative to give young readers the sense that they are participating in historical events.

In some ways, Meltzer’s biography is a series of separate stories closely related to several subgenres of young adult literature. Howe’s unpopularity at school and his subsequent practical jokes are reminiscent of a number of school stories, beginning with Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857). Howe’s involvement in the Greek Revolution and his imprisonment in Berlin has all the elements of good adventure and hero tales, while the section about the education of Bridgman, which closely parallels Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (1902), is an adventure or accomplishment romance that shows how dedication can overcome extreme obstacles.

Unlike the subjects of many biographies, Howe is not especially well known. Moreover, the books about Howe that are cited in Meltzer’s bibliography are not directed at young adults. As a result, A Light in the Dark is the definitive work on the subject for younger readers. To those who read this biography, Howe’s life and achievements will gain great significance. When the book was first published, it was universally praised for bringing excitement and interest to a life that was virtually unexplored.