Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Review: Paradise Valley by Dale Cramer

A few years ago, I read a book called Levi's Will by Dale Cramer. I think at the time, I was really enjoying Beverly Lewis's Amish books and I expected something along those lines. What I got was an entirely unexpected read about a man who left his Amish family and the struggles all tied up in that. It was a book that didn't romanticize the Amish life at all, neither did it condemn it. It also gave me a lot to think about in terms of living a Pacifist lifestyle in one little section when the main character, Will, explains why he couldn't be a Pacifist.

So imagine my utter joy and delight when that little anecdote from Levi's Will...a true story about Cramer's Amish family, is the central focus of his new Amish trilogy. If you roll your eyes at so-called bonnet books, let me urge you to read Cramer's books. I loved Paradise Valley for so many reasons and it is not at all your typical Amish read.

Paradise Valley starts in Ohio in 1922. A group of Amish men are arrested for refusing to send to their children to public school. This is a fairly recent law that has been enacted to combat child labor abuse, but Amish will not send their children to school with Englishers, they fear their corruption. Amish children learn to read, write, and do arithemetic at home, and they also learn to run a farm, and the Amish feel this is enough education. The fathers are put in jail, but the state goes one step further and takes the children away--cutting their hair and forcing them dress like Englishers. This scene is very powerful and I couldn't help but think of all the other times we've tried to make others over in our image. The Amish families soon decided they must send their children to school, but they are burdened with what to do about allowing their children to interact so much with outsiders.

Eventually, one of the farmers, Caleb Bender sees an ad for farmland in Mexico...after some tense negotiations and planning he decides to move his family down to Mexico where they will be free to live as they want. This intrigued me so much because I recently watched the film Silent Light about the Mennonites in Mexico. They head down and start their lives completely over.

This is tough for Rachel, who is really our main character, because she has fallen in love with a boy back home. This romance, which is written so beautifully in the first part of the book is a major theme throughout as Rachel longs for Jake. I have much I could say about this...about how Jake and Rachel respect each other and how Rachel knows her mind. Even while her sisters try to tell her to get to know herself first, Rachel knows she loves Jake.

In Mexico, the Benders face many unexpected things...sure they don't have to send their children to school, but there are bandits and they have no way of protecting themselves against them. The conflict of protection vs. pacifism comes up in many ways. It's fascinating really, because the entire way of Amish life--their ideals of pacifism and being left alone depend on others--"the ungodly" to do the dirty work for them. They are NOT evangelicals in any sense of the word. Somehow, they must see themselves as a kind of chosen people. This idea is extremely fascinating to me, and caused me to really consider what I think about government in people's lives. I tend to be a bit conservative in that I don't like government interfering too much in people's lives, and at the same time, the only way the Amish can continue to exist not voting, not fighting, etc. is in a government like ours! They truly are able to live out their religious freedom, which is something I clearly value. They make their own choices for themselves and they have every right to do that.

Additionally, I loved that Cramer acknowledged the way Amish women felt stifled and not in control of their lives (not just being Amish, but being women), and that the characters were forced to confront some of their racism. I thought it was pretty awesome the way the embraced learning Spanish and were willing to leave behind English, so easily. I love that some of the characters choose to combat the violence through education. And the most appealing thing about Amish life to me, the community and family, is a steady warmth on the pages of the book.

I felt like I got to know all of the characters, nothing is wasted. I was even moved to tears a few times. No one in this book is seen through a one-dimensional lens, enforcing a major theme. This is such a lovely and different Amish story...a story where the characters are forced to grapple with their most cherished beliefs in the face of changing times, with their own character, and with each other's paths. The writing as well is at times breathtakingly beautiful, the kind where I have to set the book down and just bask in the lovely words for a minute. If you enjoy stories about pioneers and settlers, I think you would like this as well, it is very much a pioneer story with a twist. And as an added bonus, there is even a blossoming interracial romance.

Paradise Valley was on my list of most anticipated reads for 2011 and it did not disappoint. It fully lived up to my expectation to be a good book, and I was pleasantly surprised with just how much I loved it. I can't wait for the next book in the continue exploring the ideas introduced in this one and to see what these characters I have grown to love will face next.

I have to share with you this quote, because I think it's a gorgeous depiction of falling in love:

"For a split second, the lanterns illuminated both their faces--the dark-eyed child giggling hysterically in mid-flight, and the strong, graceful man whose eyes laughed with him. The sight, fleeting though it was, stirred something deep within her, something profoundly akin to a memory, and it seemed to her that the earth trembled."

Yep, folks, that kind of gorgeous writing is throughout the book.

Rating: 4.75/5
Things You Might Want to Know: This is an Amish book. The Amish characters speak frankly about their faith. It is the reason they move to Mexico.
Source of Book: Review copy received from publisher
Publisher: Bethany House


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