Friday, April 15, 2011
Confession: I Have Now Read an Amish Romance
I had never read an Amish romance novel, not because I hadn’t noticed them (they’re everywhere – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, airport book and newsstands, the grocery store, everywhere). They simply held no appeal to me. None. Zip. Nada. The closest I had come to reading one was Dale Cramer’s Levi’s Will, one of the best stories I’ve read and which won the Christy Award in 2006. But it’s not an Amish romance; it’s the story of a young man who leaves his Amish family and community to strike out on his own, fight in World War II, get married, have children – and then come to turns with his family, especially his father, and his past. The novel is loosely based on the life of Cramer’s own father.
I liked Levi’s Will so much that I read everything Cramer had written – Sutter’s Mill, Bad Ground, and Summer of Light (I read that one twice). He’s a great writer and a great storyteller, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for his next novel to come out.
But he did what I didn’t expect him to do. He wrote an Amish romance. Not only that, he wrote an Amish romance that is the first in a series of Amish romances.
It was a struggle. Do I skip this novel and the ones to follow? Or do I trust Dale Cramer the writer and read this new novel?
I trusted him.
I have now read an Amish romance. Even if it had the name of Paradise Valley. Even if its cover artwork featured a young woman in the traditional Amish cap and dress. Even when it said it's the first in the series entitled “The Daughters of Caleb Bender.”
Cramer didn’t just want to test me; he wanted to give me the final exam.
In the novel, Caleb Bender, with three of his children forced to attend the school, decides to emigrate to Mexico. And this is Mexico of the early 1920s: political chaos, the old hacienda system quickly dying, banditry and Pancho Villa.
The entire Bender family leaves: Caleb and his wife, his two sons and his five daughters. Daughter Emma, who is pregnant, quickly marries her boyfriend Levi (and marries him out of the usual Amish marrying season); Levi realizes that emigration will help them avoid the inevitable shunning. Daughter Miriam is 18 and has no beau, or even the hint of one. Daughter Rachel has just realized that neighbor Jake Weaver, a year older than she is, is “the one,” and now he’s become the one who has to be left behind, because his family isn’t leaving.
The story of the problem in Pennsylvania becomes the story of moving to and living in a new land. Cramer works in several sub-plots – racial discrimination, threats from the bandits and unemployed soldiers, and a budding love interest between Miriam and the hired man Domingo – to weave a delightful story.
In the afterword, we learn that Cramer’s own father was born in Mexico. And Paradise Valley is a loosely fictional account of a real family history. It’s a history written with love, understanding and a kind of wonder.
So now I’ve read an Amish romance. I’m not going to rush out and load up on Amish romances. But I am going to read the rest of this series.
Cramer is that good of a storyteller.