Book Review: The River

You might think, from my remarks on Growing Up Amish, that I don’t read Amish fiction, and it is for those reasons that I don’t read much of it. But I was reading Beverly Lewis long before Amish fiction started exploding on the Christian fiction market. Since her books were based on or inspired by some of her grandmother’s experiences, and since she didn’t idealize the Amish lifestyle but delved into some of its problems and hardships, I’ve enjoyed all of her books that I have read. (Some other authors of Amish fiction may do the same, but I am not interested in expanding my reading of that genre.)

The RiverThe River is about two sisters from an Amish family who had left the Amish years before to “go fancy” into the world of Englischers. They receive word from a brother that there is a celebration planned for their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and both sisters are invited. They’re not inclined to attend until they hear that their father has a serious heart condition and is resisting the idea of surgery. They decide to go, with some trepidation.

Tilly, the older sister, had left the Amish first. There had always been tension between her and her father, and when her youngest little sister, Anna, had drowned in a river, that tension was exacerbated because Tilly blamed herself for not watching her sister closely enough and felt her father blamed her as well. Her sister Ruthie left a few years later primarily due to a hard breakup with a beau. Since their leaving, Tilly married and had two children; Ruthie was single but actively involved in a good church.

As they return, Tilly has the harder time, feeling that she is blamed not only for Anna’s death, but also for influencing Ruthie away from the Amish. Her father is not hostile but is not welcoming, either. Ruthie runs into her old boyfriend and at first wants to avoid him, but then decides she should at least hear him out when he wants to talk with her. Both women struggle with the parts of their former lives that are good and familiar vs. the parts that are painful.

Strong themes in the book are the need to look at another person’s side of things and the need for forgiveness, both extending and receiving.

I very much enjoyed the book and felt the struggles that were faced were realistic.

Beverly mentioned in her note at the end that she had made a documentary called “Glimpses of Lancaster County.” Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here. Each is only a few minutes long. The end of Part 2 mentions a Part 3, but I didn’t see it on the site (later I did find Part 3 on YouTube.) It was enjoyable to hear Beverly describe her childhood, her grandmother who was shunned for marrying outside of her father’s will, and to see some of the places where she and her family grew up and where some scenes for her books take place.

For those who enjoy book trailers, here is the one for The River.

Book Revew: Growing Up Amish

Growing Up AmishI had seen Growing Up Amish: A Memoir by Ira Wagler recommended by a number of people, so when it came through on sale for the Kindle app, I snagged it.

I’ve been somewhat dismayed at the rosy fascination in Christian circles for the Amish, resulting in a multitude of Amish fiction. I suppose there is an air of mystery about them that always piques curiosity. I understand admiration for their work ethic. I know some long for simpler times with less technology and wonder if the Amish might be on to something. I would have no qualms about someone living without electricity and modern conveniences because they felt it would benefit their family time or the ecology. But I do have a problem with deeming anything modern as “worldly” and condemning people to hell over such arbitrary practices as wearing a mustache, having rubber tires on a buggy, varying any degree on dress or hair styles, etc. “Legalism” is such an overused buzzword in Christendom today, but the extreme legalism of the Amish is seemingly overlooked.

Ira Wagler’s memoir strips away the romanticism and gives us a clearer view. He grew up in a prominent Amish family and community in Canada, the ninth of eleven children of a man well-known in Amish circles for his writing. As he grew into his teen years, he felt more and more constricted and constrained, “stuck in a stifling, hostile culture consisting of myriad complex rules and restrictions…arcane laws based on tradition…not to mention the drama, dictatorial decrees, the strife among so-called brothers, and the seemingly endless turmoil that resulted.” At age seventeen he left in the middle of the night and traveled by bus to work for a man who had once visited his father’s farm.

He enjoyed the freedom, but he missed his family and the stability of life at home, plus, after long days of hard work, he wasn’t really getting ahead financially. So he decided to move back home. His family and church accepted him, but the old conflicts rose to the surface again:

And therein lies the paradox that would haunt me for almost ten years: the tug-of-war between two worlds. A world of freedom versus a world of stability and family. A world of dreams versus a world of tradition. And wherever I resided at any given moment, trudging through the tough slog of daily life, the world I had left called me back from the one I inhabited. It was a brutal thing in so many ways, and I seemed helpless to combat it. Torn emotionally, moving back and forth, always following the siren’s call to lush and distant fields of peace that seemed so real but, like shimmering mirages in the desert, always faded away when I approached them.

He ended up leaving home five times altogether, always returning again until the last time, at age 26. People encouraged him to “decide to do what’s right, and then do it,” and assured him that once he just settled down, everything would be ok. He tried hard to make it work, even being baptized and joining the church. But “A mental choice, absent a real heart change, is no choice at all. We couldn’t force ourselves to be something we were not. That just couldn’t happen. And it didn’t.”

Believing that “The Amish way provided my only chance of salvation,” and that if he permanently left the fold, he would end up in hell, still couldn’t provide motive enough to stay, though it grieved him.

Personally, he “probably always believed there was a God, a sort of dark and frowning force. I just didn’t believe in him, to the extent that I thought he could or would make an actual difference in my life. I tried to believe, in my heart. But I couldn’t, in my head. I’d heard about him all my life. But if he was everything the preachers claimed he was, he sure had a strange way of hiding himself from people like me.”

Depressed and desperate, in a “mental trench of darkness from which I could see no way out,” he felt he had no choice but to finally leave the Amish for good. But then ” a sliver of light” came to him. Most of the praying he had ever seen in the Amish community was scripted, but he “decided he could simply talk to God. Ask for his help. Not by reading from a little black book, but by talking to him, man to man. Or man to God.” So he did, merely asking for the desire to do what was right.

Less than a month later, he met and almost instantly meshed with an English man who had joined the Amish, yet was a true believer.

He explained that there was no human penance for my sins. No way I could ever atone for all the things I had done. But…there was someone else who could atone. Who could wipe the past away and give new life. Heal all the wounds — my own and those I had inflicted on so many others through the years…

By quietly showing me Christ’s love, my friend had led me to the Source of that love. For the first time, I truly grasped that Christ had died for me — suffered, bled, and died–and that I could be his through faith. I was amazed at how simple it was. Why had it all seemed so hard, so impossible before?

The book ends with his final departure from the Amish at the age of 26. There’s a short epilogue at the end, but I would have liked to have learned more how about he finally adjusted to the outside world in the twenty years since he left, how his relationships with his family were since the final break, what kind of career he finally chose, etc.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, not only for the view into what it was like to grow up Amish, but also to marvel again at how God draws people to Himself.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Parting

the-parting.jpg The Parting is Beverly Lewis’s newest release and the first book in a new series called “The Courtship of Nellie Fisher.” I enjoy Beverly Lewis’s books about the Amish, based on her grandmother’s Amish heritage, a people so industrious they put me to shame, generally gentle, yet at their harshest when someone wants to step outside their traditions.

This book has many of the same elements as Lewis’s others: focus on an Amish family and their ways and interactions, one member with hidden secrets, young people going through the rituals of courtship, descriptions of wonderful-gut food making which leaves your mouth watering, the dangers of being shunned, and someone who begins to discover that the way of salvation is not in the keeping of man-made traditions. Yet with all the similarities, each book has its uniqueness.

Nellie is a young Amish woman living at home who has not yet “joined church.” She has been secretly interested in a young man named Caleb. There is some question of the reputation of Nellie’s younger sister, Suzy, who has died in a drowning accident while out with non-Amish people, but once Caleb assures himself that whatever happened is not enough to taint the family (and cause his father’s disapproval), he makes his interest known to Nellie.

Nellie’s father, after visiting with a relative who has embraced a different belief system and who shares the Word of God with him, begins to read from portions of Scripture which are not encouraged by the brethren. His heart is overjoyed when his eyes are opened to the gospel of John and the realization that salvation is a free gift and that he can know for sure he belongs to the Lord. He begins to share his newfound knowledge and joy with his family, but Nellie is afraid this is a far bigger threat to her courtship than Suzy’s reputation, for those who profess to know they are saved are shunned and put out of Amish fellowship.

In many of the previous books, the father is the one most rooted in tradition and last to even be open to the idea of change, so it was a delight to me this time to see the father taking the lead. His joy was a rebuke to me: those of us who have known the way of salvation for years can too easily take it for granted. And the courage he and others display when they must follow the way of truth in spite of what it might mean, and the gentle and gracious way he tries to handle sharing that truth and the accompanying reactions are inspiring.

It is heartbreaking when any system denies and squelches the truth and ensnares its people in the darkness of man-made traditions and rituals. I’ve wondered what made the original Amish choose only certain portions of God’s Word and leave out the rest. When I wrote a post earlier this week about our righteousness being based on Christ’s, I had not only just read verses on the subject that morning, but I was also in the midst of reading this book and watching The Last Sin-Eater DVD about another time and place and another system of tradition that keeps its people in darkness. Would that all people would have a chance to at least hear the truth and make their own decisions.