Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Outsider - Ann H. Gabhart

Having joined the Shaker community of Harmony Hill as a child, Gabrielle has always felt content with her lifestyle and never questioned returning to the outside world. According to her Sisters and Brothers, Gabrielle has been blessed with the gift of visions, which often give her disturbing and chilling foresight into events that have yet to happen. When one of these visions helps her to locate a Brother who has been harmed in a barn fire, a doctor is required to visit the community on a regular basis to aid his recovery. Gabrielle's encounters with young local doctor, Brice Scott, call her to question the life she is living and whether it is truly God's plan for men and women to act as siblings. The community begin to doubt Gabrielle's loyalty to their faith, and when Brice is ripped away from her to tend to wounded soldiers on the battlefield, Gabrielle's commitment to her fellow Brothers and Sisters is tested as they place her under vigorous supervision. Will Brice return to rescue her, or will Gabrielle choose to remain in the life she has become used to?

Being an avid fan of books about the Amish, I was intrigued when my Amish Fiction book club decided to read a novel about another Plain group - the Shakers. I'd never heard of these people before, and as I investigated further it appeared that they were very different from the Amish. I say "were" because the Shakers have nearly entirely died out, with only a few members remaining. While they believed, like the Amish, in coming closer to God through hard physical work and tending the land, the majority of the principles of their faith could not be more different. The Shakers believed that they should live a life of celibacy because marriage is a sin, men and women were entirely separated in their communities, and when families joined the children were taken away from their parents. This alone was enough to make me feel uncomfortable, and hope that Gabrielle would be able to escape the community. This is the main difference that I found between reading Amish and Shaker fiction - I always hope that the characters in Amish fiction will either convert or remain with their faith, whereas I felt that the Shakers were a cult and hoped that Brice would take Gabrielle away from her community.

Because of the limitations of her community, Gabrielle spent very little time alone with Brice, and due to this this their relationship felt quite shallow. I really wish that they'd spent more time together so that I could have felt entirely convinced of their love for each other. Since they spent so much time apart - especially after Brice left to go to war - I almost got the feeling that Gabrielle was attracted to Brice purely because he offered her a means of escape, and was a symbol of all that the outside world represented. Thus, I found myself wondering, is this actually a romance novel at all? In places it felt more like a historical novel, which I don't mind as I love historical fiction, but it was definitely marketed as a romance, so other readers might be a bit disappointed at the lack of contact between Gabrielle and Brice for a large portion of the book.

Another complaint would have to be the treatment of the Shaker worship and Gabrielle's visions. I felt that this aspect was very vague and I was never sure whether the author was suggesting that the songs, dances and visions that Gabrielle had been blessed with were fake or from Satan. If this was what she was trying to convey, I feel that it could be misleading and could make some people to believe that such things never come from God. While I think that a lot of what the Shakers believed was definitely not scriptural or from God, I do believe that he can speak to people through worship and visions, so I wish that the Gabhart had been more precise in the message she was trying to convey through the presentation of Gabrielle's gifts.

This was a fascinating read, and I learned a lot about the Shaker faith and the War of 1812. If you're a fan of historical fiction and want to read something slightly different, I'd definitely recommend this book. But don't be tricked into thinking that this is an Amish romance - the Shakers are very different from the Amish, and I personally felt that the romance aspect was very minimal. Despite that, this was a very compelling book and I plan to read the others in the series at some point in the future. 8/10

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