Saturday, July 7, 2012

A World Away

Nancy Grossman's A World Away, a young adult novel, is perhaps the first novel I've read about the Amish that isn't from a Christian perspective. It's a secular book, but the difference isn't really apparent until you get to the "English" parts of the book, and even then, it's rather subtle. There's just the lack of anything religious in the English world: prayers before meals, church, etc. Otherwise, the basic plot is very similar to other books I've read about the Amish: a girl, hungering for the outside world, leaves her community, lives among the English, and must then decide which world she wants forever, because among the Amish, you can be a part of only one or the other.

Eliza has just reached the age where those in her community are given the opportunity to run wild. The Amish lifestyle is not forced. It's one you choose after a time called Rumspringa. But choose you must. There's no living with a foot in both worlds. Eliza is desperate to be given more freedom for her Rumspringa, but her mother is cautious about letting her go, to say the least. Put in an impossible situation, knowing they'll lose her if they don't let her go on her own, her parents send her to be a nanny for an English woman named Rachel. Eliza is ready to try everything and anything. After all, she only gets this one chance...unless she decides to stay. But she doesn't have to figure that out for a whole summer, a summer of fun, delicious boredom, an attentive new boy, and firsts of just about anything she can imagine. There's nothing so wondrous as trying something for the first time.

Grossman's familiarity with the Amish lifestyle is obvious. She didn't just write a book, imagining life inside the Amish world. She studied it thoroughly and presented a more detailed transition from Amish to English than I had seen before. She answered questions I wouldn't have thought to ask. If the author wasn't once Amish herself, either she must have had a lot of close contact or she must be similar to the book's character Rachel. I won't say how because that would be a spoiler.

In some ways, I missed the religious discussion that Christian novels about the Amish provide. But in other ways, I didn't. It was interesting to have the focus be on the difference in lifestyle, especially between a person whose life is wrapped around religion and one who has no religion at all. I wonder if the novel could have been just the tiniest bit better with something more said on the topic, but I don't know.

What I do know is that this is a beautiful book. It made me cry so many times. It's all about relationships and the mistakes we must live through ourselves even though those who have gone before try so hard to keep us from making them. I was impressed that even the friendships that Eliza has with minor characters we barely see in the book feel real. I love books that make every character count even when their roles are small.

There is a love triangle in this book, but the story is not primarily a romance. It's about two worlds colliding, though they aren't supposed to. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I have to say it resolved itself far better than I could have imagined. Four stars for a book that takes a common experience in another world and presents it beautifully for our understanding.

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