Friday, April 15, 2011

Confession: I Have Now Read an Amish Romance

In the April issue of Christianity Today, history professor Eric Miller of Geneva College has on article on a subject that has usually made my blood run cold.

The title says it all: “Why We Love Amish Fiction.” It’s an account of this genre of Christian fiction, more accurately called Amish romance fiction, that seems to have become something larger than a genre. What I didn’t know, until I read the article, was that there are actually sub-genres of Amish fiction, including one that is distinctly unsympathetic to the Amish.

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.

Paradise Valley is based on a true story. In the early 1920s, the state of Pennsylvania enacted a law requiring children to attend school until they were 16. Five Amish fathers were arrested and jailed for refusing to send their children to the “Englisher” school. They relented only when the children were removed from their homes and placed in a children’s home. Many of these familes and others eventually emigrated from the United States to create new lives in Mexico.

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.


Louise Gallagher said...

...and so are you. That good a storyteller. In this case, book reviewer storyteller.

Thanks Glynn.... you're making me want to add to the pile on my nightstand.

Karen Kyle Ericson said...

This does look good. I admit I had the same reaction to all the Amish love stories in the Christian market. Sometimes it seems like publishers find a success then over-saturate. But these sound like they have some depth to them. I don't live far from Amish country in PA. It's an interesting topic for sure- their beliefs are fascinating.

Maureen said...

You surely deserve an award for openness to reading virtually anything and everything. I can't say I was aware of this particular genre/sub-genre of literature; you relate its substance.

There are many Amish in Maryland, and I've visited working Amish farms in Pennsylvania and have purchased the gorgeous hand-made quilts. The history of the Amish is fascinating.

Dale Cramer said...

Thanks for the kind words, Glynn, especially the ones about trusting me. The truth is, I've never written romance because I was intimidated by the idea of writing from a female point of view, so I decided to tackle my deficiency head on. I thought the Mexico story was the perfect vehicle because my great grandfather (elder statesman of the colony) had seven daughters and three sons, and because it's not JUST a romance. A good story needs depth and principle, and a great story needs teeth. Book 2, The Captive Heart, comes out in December. It has teeth.

Duane Scott said...

This was a very interesting review.

Although now my opinion of you just plummeted.

Okay, I'm kidding.

I think it's really cool that you don't shy away from some genres just because they aren't what you normally read.

The truth is, that's why you write so well. You're well read.

However, don't expect me to read a romance.

I hold off at that.


PS. Proud of you Dale Cramer. I'm impressed you faced your fears. ;)

S. Etole said...

Sounds like a good one to add to my list ...

Anonymous said...

and i trust you in knowing a good writer.
thanks for the book reviews.