Monday, October 8, 2012

Dale Cramer: Writing from Life

didn't read Dale Cramer’s first four extraordinary novels in the order they were written. I first read the third one, Levi’s Will. When I finished it, I knew I had found a writer both talented and true. He was writing not only from his imagination but also is heart and his own experience.

I will admit to some misgivings. I know Amish fiction is popular, but I prefer other genres. Levi’s Will looked more than vaguely Amish; it looked especially Amish. It turned out to be one completely absorbing story, one that transcended the author. He wasn't writing only from his own knowledge and experience; he was writing from mine as well.

And it turns out that all of his novels are like that.

Sutter’s Cross (2002) is the story of what happens to a small town when a stranger appears.

In Bad Ground (2004), a teenager leaves his home in Tennessee to live with his uncle, a miner in the Atlanta area. The uncle is called Snake, and he was badly burned in an underground fire, the same fire that killed his nephew’s brother.
Levi’s Will (2005) is about a young Amish man who abandons his family, joins the army and fights in World War II, marries a sharecropper’s daughter and is “banned” by his family for decades.

Summer of Light (2007) is the story of a construction worker injured on the job, and fired. His wife is working, and he’s left to be the primary caregiver for their three children, find an occupation, and find himself. It is a delightful story, by far the most humorous of the four novels, and it is the one I've gone back to over and over to read and reread how Cramer constructed some of the funniest scenes I've read in what is largely a serious novel.

All of the novels absorb aspects of Cramer’s own life and family. His father was Amish, left his Amish family for “the English,” and was indeed banned for 60 years. (Cramer has said that it was his novel, the novel written by the father’s son, that eventually fostered reconciliation six decades after the fact.) Cramer worked as a miner and was burned, though not as badly as Snake is. And Cramer has been a construction worker.

Clearly that’s a major reason why these stories seem so true. But it’s more than that. The stories transcend Cramer’s own experience. Reading Levi’s Will, for example, threw me headlong into my own father’s experience. He wasn't Amish but Southern Baptist. He wasn't banned or shunned for leaving his home town to move to New Orleans and eventually marry and raise a family there, but he was always something of a black sheep, and he and one of his sisters didn't speak for more than 40 years until they were so old it was ridiculous not to. He also fought in World War II, and while my mother wasn't the daughter of a sharecropper, she did come from a very poor New Orleans family. 

Reading Levi’s Will was like reading my own family history.

Cramer has that singular ability to write – and write well – from his own life. He’s not settling old scores; if anything, the affection he has for his characters tells the reader this is more about honoring than criticizing. His stories are inhabited by real people, with real human failings and real human dreams.

In late 2010, four years after the publication of Summer of Light, I saw that he had a new novel soon to be published. It was called Paradise Valley: The Daughters of Jacob Bender, and it looked like the beginning of a series.

The cover strongly suggested Amish.

But I trusted the stories of Dale Cramer and knew that he would find a way to transcend the genre. He did, and I wrote about it.

And then he did a sequel, The Captive Heart, and I read it and wrote about it as well.

It says a lot about Cramer’s writing ability that he persuaded me to read two Amish romances and that I enjoyed them both.

This article was originally published by The Christian Manifesto, but the site was redesigned and the archive (with all of my posts) disappeared. So I’m occasionally reposting some of the articles I wrote for the publication. This particular article has been updated to include the references to Cramer’s last two novels.


Bill (cycleguy) said...

Thanks for writing about these books Glynn. I would not have given them a second glance because of the picture of Amish. But you made them sound like books I may want to read. Always looking for some good fiction.

Diana said...

I'm pretty sure I followed your recommendation last year to read 'Caleb's Daughter" - it was the next read-aloud-in-the-car book after "Dancing Priest" - and we loved it. Now I'll look up these others, too. Thank you!