In Melanie Dobson’s novel, The Stranger, banker Jacob Hirsch lost his job in 1894 Chicago. His wife had died the year before. He decides to scrape together the cash he can and take his four-year-old daughter, Cassie, to Washington, where he heard work was available.
But Cassie falls ill on the train. Jacob gets off in Iowa, desperate to find help, though he has little money. A woman approaches him, speaking German. She takes Jacob and Cassie to the nearby doctor, who diagnoses Cassie with diphtheria and quarantines them. Liesel, the German woman, insists on staying to help nurse Cassie since Jacob is injured as well.
Jacob learns that the community he’s in is called the Amana Colonies. Its founders immigrated from Germany in the 1830s and the group lived a communal life style. The families lived in individual homes, but each member was assigned a job in the community. They were a charitable group, providing meals and help to those in need. But they were suspicious of outsiders and preferred that they move along as soon as possible.
Liesel works in the gardens, though she wants to work with children. It was arranged that she would marry Emil some day, a baker who wants to be a carpenter. She doesn’t really know him, but she assumes they’ll grow to love each other eventually. She finds it strange, though, that he hasn’t sent word to her or checked on her since she has been quarantined.
In close quarantined quarters, Jacob and Liesel find much to admire about each other. After quarantine is over, Jacob is asked if he will help out in the community while Cassie continues to recover. Liesel offers to take care of Cassie while Jacob works.
The Amana elders commend Liesel for her help but warn her about becoming too close to Jacob. Her father is more adamant than most, with his suspicion of outsiders heightened by his own wife’s leaving him and Liesel and the colonies.
But as Jacob and Liesel’s feelings grow, their dilemma does as well. Would Jacob be willing to stay? Would the elders even let him? Would Liesel be willing to leave the only community she has known for Jacob?
And, unbeknownst to either of them, unexpected trouble is brewing for Jacob back in Chicago.
I had heard of the Amana colonies briefly before. Some might confuse them with the Amish or Mennonites, but there are differences. Neither of those groups lives communally, but they all value hard work and simplicity. The Amana group was known as the Community of True Inspiration, and its followers were called Inspirationalists. They believed that God spoke through certain “instruments” in their time just as He did in Bible days, and they placed their books on Inspirationalist sayings on an equal plane with the Bible. Some of their sayings (sprinkled between chapters in this book) sound Christian-ish, but others are a little off. Like “Whosoever sincerely seeks the treasure within their heart must seek with diligence, abandoning all else. You must search deeply until you reach the unfathomable, wherein you shall be absorbed,” Johann Friedrich Rock, 1717 (p. 118)—whatever that means. So I would call this historical fiction, but not Christian fiction.
But I enjoyed learning more about the Amana colonies, and I enjoyed the story.
Amana members disbanded the commune in 1932, but the society is till there. Amana appliances came from this area, and that business was later bought by Whirlpool. Now the colonies offer tours and sell wares.