Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘Amish culture’

The First Love

Posted by nliakos on December 29, 2019

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House 2018)

Set in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, like Beverly Lewis’ other novels, The First Love is the most religious of Lewis’ books that I have encountered so far. It turns out her father was an evangelist who held revival meetings in Lancaster County, just like the tent meetings Maggie Esh is tempted by in this novel. Lewis writes, “My own father pitched a large tent not far from the location of the crusade Maggie Esh attends. There, for two consecutive summers, he conducted six-week evangelistic meetings where various evangelists preached the gospel and the sick were healed by God’s miraculous power.” The first love alluded to in the title refers to the love of Jesus that Maggie discovers in the tent meetings. Nevertheless, Lewis respects her character’s choice to remain in her Old Order Amish community. Maggie ventures out, is changed by the meetings she attends, and even makes friends with the evangelist’s son, but ultimately, she goes ahead with her plan to be baptized into her Amish church.

The book is also about Maggie’s struggle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She longs to be pain-free and strong so that she can pull her weight at home and dream of marrying and having her own family. She tries many remedies and dares to flirt with the idea of faith healing (apparently not part of the Amish tradition). One remedy appears to be effective for weeks on end, but in the end disappoints her as all the others have. Fortunately the young man Maggie loves accepts her as she is, after 282 pages of wondering if they will ever get together. (Spoiler Alert: Then, in a puzzling Epilogue, an older Maggie recalls how her husband and father prayed over her and laid hands on her, and how two days later, she became pain-free and lived happily ever after. After all those pages devoted to the Amish resistance to faith healing, this bit was a bit too facile for me. Did Lewis just want to include a non-Amish miracle in her story?)

The final plot line concerns the Esh children’s difficulty accepting Rachel, their father’s new wife, their Mamm having recently died of rheumatic heart disease. Lewis writes not only from Maggie’s perspective but also from Rachel’s. Rachel is deeply in love with her much-older husband Joseph, and her story involves her struggle to earn the love and respect of Joseph’s older children, especially 14-year-old Leroy, who is suffering from his inability to keep a promise he made to his dying mother, but also Grace and Maggie, 16 and 17-18 respectively, who are courteous and obedient but distant with their Schtiefmudder.

It all turns out all right. Lewis’ novels have replaced the murder mysteries I used to enjoy. They aren’t deep, but they are interesting. Her descriptions of the Plain folk’s simple life provide an escape from our world of technology.

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The Love Letters

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House/a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2015)

I found a copy of this book at my local Little Free Library. Since I had enjoyed The Atonement and The Photograph, I traded Trains and Lovers for it. Like the others, it was an easy read (about a day); it kept me engaged without claiming to be great literature, and it taught me some things I didn’t know about the “Plain People” that we call the Amish.

There are multiple stories woven into the novel. There is Marlena Wenger of Mifflinburg, who is engaged to Nat Zimmerman. Marlena and Nat were brought up in an Old Order Amish community, but Marlena’s parents left that community to join the “Beachy  Amish-Mennonites“, and out of deference to her parents, Marlena has been worshiping in their church. Then Marlena is sent to spend the summer in Brownstown with her grandmother Janice, a “black-bumper Mennonite“, after the death of her grandfather, to provide company and assistance as the older woman gets used to her new reality. This sacrifice will delay Marlena’s marriage to Nat.

Then there are the Old Order Bitners, Janice’s neighbors: Roman and Ellie, and their children Dorcas, Julia, Sally, and Jake (“Small Jay”), who is small for his age (14) and has some disabilities (both mental and physical). Ellie and Marlena are quite close. Small Jay is unloved by his father for his disabilities, and Ellie’s heart breaks to see how much her son wants to help his father, who continually rejects him. Small Jay meets a homeless man, “Boston”, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. But he treats Small Jay with respect and courtesy, earning his trust and affection.

Marlena has an older sister, Luella, who left their family and went “fancy”, marrying an “Englischer.” Tragically, Luella is severely injured in an automobile accident. Since her husband is serving in the military overseas and his parents are on a European vacation and are unreachable, Marlena is tasked to take care of her five-month-old niece, Angela Rose, until her parents can take her back. But Luella dies from her injuries, and then Gordon is missing in action and presumed dead. Marlena, who by now adores the baby, would like to keep her forever, but the presumption is that Gordon’s parents will take her. Nat is less than understanding of Marlena’s deep attachment to the baby; he wishes she would give her up so that he can court her properly when she returns from Brownstown. He is also unhappy that Marlena is attending her grandmother’s church, rather than Old Order prayer services with the Bitners. Marlena, however, is undergoing a spiritual transformation in the (slightly) more liberal faith communities of her grandmother and her friends the Masts. She persists in believing that Nat will come around, but he seems to be losing patience with her refusal to obey him.

The eponymous love letters are carried in a satchel by Boston, the mysterious homeless man. They seem to be from a devoted wife, Abigail, whom he insists is gone from him forever. Small Jay reads him a letter from time to time, becoming more and more curious about the man’s origins. (There are also letters between Marlena and Luke, but the love they express begins to lose ground to their spiritual disagreements.)

What will happen to Angela Rose? Will Nat come around and marry Marlena, while allowing her to worship in her New Order community? Will Roman ever accept his son and give him the love and trust he deserves? Will he relax his authority over his wife and daughters? And will Boston be reunited with his Abigail? These are the questions that kept me turning the pages.

The theme of the various Amish and Mennonite communities, and how they differ from one another, was very interesting. Clothing, colors, use of electricity, whether they drive traditional buggies or cars, style and language of prayer and relationship with the Divine, place of worship, presence or absence of missionary work-all these combine to keep the communities apart. Individuals like Roman Bitner and Nat Zimmerman, both Old Order Amishmen, refuse to socialize with (or even be friendly with) members of other Anabaptist sects (or to permit their womenfolk to do so). It’s the Sh’ia vs. the Sunni, the Protestants vs. the Catholics, the Orthodox vs. the Conservative or Reformed, all over again, but playing out in what is essentially one religion which has splintered over and over into many tiny communities that won’t talk to each other anymore. It’s quite sad, really.

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The Photograph

Posted by nliakos on January 3, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (BethanyHouse 2015)

My daughter Vicki gave me this novel set in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing that I had enjoyed The Atonement by the same author. It was a very quick read (just one day!), and the ending was obvious from Chapter Two, but I read on, keen to find out how that ending would be achieved.

Twenty-year-old Eva Esch’s younger sister Lily runs away from their Lancaster County community, intending to “go fancy”. Eva and her older sister Frona must deal not only with this crisis but also with their brother’s family’s impending move into their deceased parents’ home and farm, which will necessitate their finding another place to live. In a parallel plot line, Ohio Amishman Jed Stutzman travels to Pennsylvania by train to learn more about his trade; on the train, he finds a copy of Little Women, with many notations in the margins, and a photograph of a pretty Amish girl between the pages. Since the Amish do not permit personal photos which show their faces, it’s a bit of a mystery how the photo came to be, but Jed finds himself smitten by not only the lovely face but also by the sentiments in the notes. When he gets to Pennsylvania and sees Eva, he takes her for the girl in the picture, who is in fact Lily, the runaway sister. It takes a while to sort this misunderstanding out.

Eva finds herself drawn to Jed and he to her, and the rest of the book details how they manage to get together. As in The Atonement, I enjoyed the glimpse into this unique culture. I couldn’t help but wonder why they aren’t all obese, because they are always eating sweets (Eva sells the candy she makes in a little shop attached to her house, and the characters are constantly eating cookies, ice cream, pies, cakes, fudge, peanut butter balls, Butterfinger truffles. . . .)!  I suppose the fact that they are constantly walking or working might have something to do with it.

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