The course of true love never did run smooth, even in an Old Order Amish community. Miriam has been in love with Saul Fisher since they were children. Now they are on the cusp of adulthood, the time when young men and women must decide which paths in life they will take. Miriam expects she and Saul will marry and remain in the community. Saul, on the other hand, has a job offer from a Pittsburgh restaurant and can’t wait to leave, though it means abandoning his brothers.
Beth Wiseman very much does her job in Plain Proposal, part of her Daughters of the Promise series. Yes, the book is a romance novel, and not even the kind that features “naughty.” Yes, this is a Christian novel, and one of Ms. Wiseman’s explicit desires is to buffet the reader’s belief in Christianity. If you don’t avail yourself of these kinds of novels on occasion, you’re really missing out. Writers such as Ms. Wiseman are great because they make promises to the reader and then fulfill them. What else do you want from a storyteller? (Please consider purchasing the book through Ms. Wiseman’s web site, from your local indie store, from Kobo, from Barnes and Noble, or from Amazon.)
Okay, so because this is an Amish/romance/Christian/inspirational novel, we can be pretty sure that the book is not going to feature a worldwide alien invasion or a Silence of the Lambs situation. Still, Ms. Wiseman must find a way to fulfill her responsibility to the reader. She must give us a story in which the events matter very deeply to the characters. There must be something important at stake.
Now look what Ms. Wiseman does in Chapter One. We learn that the book is structured in such a way that there are alternating sections from the viewpoints of different characters. It’s immediately clear that Miriam and Saul fancy each other. Boooooooring. That’s not enough to make a good book, and Ms. Wiseman knows it. After we hear about the impending arrival of Miriam’s pretty Englisch cousin (potential love rival?!?!?), the author ends the chapter from Saul’s perspective thus:
But as she looked up at him with a smile that threatened to melt his resolve, he knew that he was going to do the unthinkable–date her for the summer. Then leave her in August. God, forgive me.
Oh, snap! You don’t need to be Amish to know that this is a SERIOUS situation. (And it’s a serious situation, regardless of your religion or way of life.) We don’t know Miriam or Saul very well because we’re only in Chapter One, but Ms. Wiseman sets up some very big stakes:
Miriam and Saul are both in their rumschpringe, the “running around” time in which a young person decides whether he or she wishes to be baptized into the Amish way of life permanently. Both have been running around for a while…time is running out before they must make a decision.
Miriam wants to live in the community and to marry Saul.
Saul wants to leave the community but also wants to have a sweet, romantic summer with Miriam.
These two goals are contradictory! If one of them gets what he or she wants, the other will be heartbroken!
I loved the end of Chapter One because of how succinctly and powerfully Ms. Wiseman established the stakes. I was reminded of a very different work of art: The Terminator. After Kyle Reese and the T-800 shoot up the Tech Noir nightclub around Sarah Connor, Kyle makes the stakes of the story very, very clear: “Come with me if you want to live.”
Miriam’s cousin Shelby is also a young woman, but she’s not Amish. Her parents are splitting up, and Shelby has made some poor decisions. (Unfortunately, this is an Amish/romance/inspirational-type novel, so the reader does not get any of the dirty details. I suppose Ms. Wiseman leaves it to your imagination.) As another of the book’s main characters, SHELBY NEEDS A REASON TO BE IN THE RABER HOME. SHE NEEDS TO HAVE SOME STAKE IN THE NOVEL. So the author is careful to give her one at the end of Chapter Two. Shelby writes in her diary:
…Maybe I’m being punished. I don’t know. I just know that I feel bad all the time. I want to be loved, but my heart is so empty and my faith in life, in God, is gone. I don’t have anything to live for.
So what is Shelby’s arc through the rest of the book? Of course. She’s going to find a reason to live. (It’s not a spoiler alert to reveal that God is a part of the reason.)
Ms. Wiseman’s book is a fun and quick read because she made the characters’ goals so clear, even though she puts poor Miriam and Saul through a lot of changes of minds and hearts. Even though the story and characters evolve (particularly Miriam’s mother, Rebecca!), the reader always has a firm grasp of what the characters want and why it matters to them.
Amish, Beth Wiseman, Romance
Hey, everyone. It’s time to be a little bit jealous of Wanda E. Brunstetter. But not too jealous; that would be a sin. Ms. Brunstetter has published a lot of books and has a devoted audience for her Amish inspirational romances. I know many people aren’t literary omnivores, but I love reading all kinds of books, even though I’m not exactly in the stereotypical demographic for these kinds of novels. Still, Ms. Brunstetter has a lot to teach us. More importantly, she writes fun books and fulfills every promise she makes with her books.
Check out this book trailer for the first book in The Amish Cooking Class series: The Seekers.
The novel is centered upon the farm of Lyle and Heidi Troyer. They are a proud Amish couple–but not too proud; that would be a sin–who have a beautiful place in Ohio. Lyle is an auctioneer and Heidi decides to make a little money and to share her gift with others by teaching a weekly cooking class.
I guess I’ll introduce the first lesson here…Ms. Brunstetter very wisely came up with a conceit that allows her to put a bunch of drama-prone characters together. Think about it. While Heidi Troyer is a very calm and dignified woman who has most everything figured out, she surrounds herself with people who have far more problems than she does. Ron is a Vietnam War vet who ends up camped on the Troyer property when his RV breaks down. Kendra is pregnant and her family has turned her away, not that doing so will stop the baby from arriving. Eli lost his wife and is looking for companionship. See? All of these people have discernible problems and needs. Guess what? Ms. Brunstetter allows the characters to grow and change based upon their interactions and their own internal struggles. (And maybe Heidi has her own problem that needs to be solved…)
We certainly can’t fashion every single one of our stories in this way, but creating a nexus of conflict and drama is a time-tested tactic for teasing trouble out of our characters. Here are some examples:
- Cheers, the bar from Cheers, is populated by a number of well-drawn characters who unite in one place. Each of them have their own problems and needs and the writers wring drama (and comedy) out of having all of these characters in the same place.
- Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca is a meeting spot that facilitates conflict. Everyone goes there. The Nazis, the French, ridiculously beautiful refugees played by Ingrid Bergman…everyone. Placing everyone in the same nightclub allows the drama to blossom. (If you haven’t seen Casablanca, please do so. It’s for the best.)
- Eerie, Indiana is the new home of Marshall Teller, a town where all kinds of creepy and cool things happen. The gents who created the TV show, José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, created a place where weird and wonderful things can happen. The show could have (and should have) run forever.
Heidi’s Amish cooking class offers Ms. Brunstetter near-inexhaustible opportunities to cycle interesting characters in and out of the orbit of the Troyer kitchen. This seems to be the plan, as The Seekers is Book One of a series…
This is an Amish inspirational romance-type book, so you know there won’t be any of the flashy kinds of conflict on offer. The international spy rings, serial killers and terrorist attacks will appear in other kinds of books. Still, Ms. Brunstetter allows her characters to be unpleasant, particularly in the context of the genre and story. Ron, the Vietnam vet, repeatedly lies to the Troyers and takes advantage of their hospitality. He even steals from his hosts. Kendra made “one little mistake” and got pregnant out of wedlock. Ms. Brunstetter does not examine these themes in the same manner as writers in other genres might do, but she is still allowing her characters to misbehave and to do things that the Christian characters shouldn’t do. The principle applies to characters in all genres. On occasion, I read YA books in which the teenagers are impossibly polite and respectful of the opposite sex. Not only does this kind of attitude pose problems creating drama, but it’s also not realistic.
Those who write Amish books have a problem that is easily transferable to all other authors who include other languages in their work. The Amish are generally fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch and the language is a very important part of their culture. (As it is for every culture.) Ms. Brunstetter has an obligation to include the language in her dialogue–the characters would use these words!–but she must also ensure that the audience knows what she’s talking about. Let’s take a look at an example of how the author handles this problem:
See what she does? She italicizes the word the reader probably won’t know and then defines it in the following line of dialogue. We were already told that Lyle is married to Heidi, so we know fraa = wife. Kichlin = cookies. There are other ways to handle the problem, but this is one.
I’ve read a few of Ms. Brunstetter’s books, and The Seekers is as fun as the others. The world that the author creates, this Amish version of Ohio, is everything that her readers want it to be. It’s simple. Plain. People still have conflicts, but they resolve them calmly. (And with the help of God, as her target readers expect.)
The great strength of this book (and of so many others in the genre) is that the authors make promises to the reader and keep them. Ms. Brunstetter promises the reader in this case, that they will learn about Amish food, they will see characters solve their problems together and with the help of their religion and that the book will be a calm and unobjectionable read that has a discernible conclusion that wraps everything up. (Aside, of course, from the story strands that will likely be taken up in subsequent books.)
I don’t know how many Great Writers Steal writers have given the Amish inspirational genre a chance, but they should. A writer must have a balanced reading diet.
Amish, Amish inspirational, Romance, Shiloh Run Press, Wanda E. Brunstetter