Saturday, 22 October 2011

Beside Still Waters - Tricia Goyer


Born on the day of the buggy accident that took the lives of her two older sisters, Marianna Sommers has always felt that she never measured up to her lost siblings in the eyes of her parents. She has consigned herself to the fact that once she leaves her family home and marries the man God has intended for her, she can start her life anew, a life in which she isn’t constantly being compared to her deceased sisters. Hopefully this life will be with Aaron Zook, who has recently asked her to take a buggy ride home from a singing with him. But before they get the chance to start courting, Marianna’s father announces that the whole family will be moving to Montana, in an attempt to avoid losing any more of their children. With two daughters gone to be with the Lord and a son left to join the English world, her parents are desperate to hang on to their remaining children. A trial period living in Montana appears to be a viable solution, no matter how much Marianna objects. And although she is given the option of remaining in Indiana with her extended family, Marianna knows that her mother is expecting another child and decides to move to Montana, at least until her new sibling is born. But after an argument with Aaron over her choice to leave, and his failure to reply to any of her letters, Marianna starts to settle into her new life in Montana. Despite initial reservations about the lack of discipline in the Bishop-less community and the close relationships her family begin to forge with English neighbours, Marianna finds herself drawing closer to God in Montana. When the opportunity arises for her to return to Indiana and Aaron, will she take it, or choose to remain in the new life she has made for herself in Montana?

Although I’ve been long aware of Tricia Goyer’s presence in the Christian fiction market, Beside Still Waters was the first of her novel’s that I’d personally read. I was intrigued to see that she was straying from her usual historical writing and making a foray into the world of Amish fiction, and I’m pleased to report that this venture has been a definite success! Beside Still Waters has to be one of the most original Amish novels that I’ve read this year, in a location that has previously been unexplored in this genre. In observing the Sommer family moving from Indiana to Montana, readers are able to understand the nuances and differences that are present in Amish communities. While one community may shun all non-business relationships with Englishers, another may be open to friendships with their non-Amish neighbours. It was fascinating to see how the small, rural community in Montana differed from those often featured in popular Amish fiction set in Pennsylvania or Ohio. Even Marianna’s home community in Indiana had distinct differences. In a genre that is already becoming saturated, new Amish authors need to make their work stand out from the crowd, which Tricia has succeeded in doing through placing her characters in a new setting and a more liberal community.

One of Marianna’s main problems with life in Montana is the closeness to the English, particularly young Ben Stone, whose relationship with his Lord and Saviour challenges her pre-existing views of Englishers. Back in Indiana, she would never have been allowed to work and live so closely with outsiders who might cause her drift away from her Amish beliefs, but Ben actually ends up helping Marianna to develop her personal relationship with God. Although her friendship with Ben sometimes confuses Marianna and causes her to reconsider some of the rules she has always followed in her stricter community back home in Indiana, a connection begins to blossom between them. Her family and friends are cautious about her spending too much time with a young English man, but since the community is in such close, daily contact with local Englishers, their relationship does not seem too strange. Tricia’s observations on the ways that the Amish treat outsiders were particularly interesting. While some books focus purely relationships within Amish communities, and others show Englishers who come to “find themselves” in Amish country and end up converting to the faith, I felt that Beside Still Waters showed something completely different. Because their community is so small and rural, the Sommers’ nearest neighbours are Englishers and they often have to call on Ben for help in a crisis, rather than their Amish friends, because he lives closer and has transport. But it is also acknowledged that their home community in Indiana is much stricter, and Marianna’s friendship with Ben would never have been allowed to develop there.

In discussing this novel with my book group, my friends and I found ourselves considering which male protagonist we hoped Marianna would end up with – were we Team Aaron or Team Ben? While Aaron is your typical young Amish man, building a house for his future wife and family and attending singings, he fails to understand Marianna’s need to be with her family in Montana, and the two of them end up parting not on the best terms. I found his behaviour rather immature, and some of the events that transpired later in the book made me even more wary of him and his commitment to Marianna. On the other hand, Ben isn’t Amish but displays many of the qualities often displayed in Amish men. I personally found him to be a much more appealing character than Aaron, even if he lived a different lifestyle from Marianna. But considering that there are two more books in this series, will Marianna and her potential beaus come to mature in future instalments? I’m looking forward to discovering whether Aaron will grow up a bit, and whether Ben’s closeness to the Amish will make him consider becoming one of the community.

I’m pleased that Tricia Goyer has decided to begin penning novels for the Amish genre. If Beside Still Waters is a good example of her work then I believe that readers of this genre will quickly be adding her to their list of favourite authors. Tricia will be revisiting Montana in October 2011 with Along Wooded Paths, and I’m sure that many readers are eagerly awaiting this instalment in order to find out where the wooded path takes Marianna next in her life.

Review title provided by B&H Publishing.

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