Monday, 24 October 2011

The Journey - Wanda E. Brunstetter


When the chance to work as a carpenter in an Amish community in Kentucky arises, Titus Fisher jumps at the opportunity. Always in the shadow of his perfect twin brother, Timothy, and watched like a little child by his mother, Titus feels it’s time to find where he belongs in the world. And since this offer follows his girlfriend Phoebe’s announcement that she still isn’t ready to join the Amish church, Titus feels that perhaps it would do him some good to be away from the ties he has back home in Pennsylvania. Soon he’s settling into the rhythms of life in Kentucky, despite the dilapidated trailer he lives in and his lack of a buggy, and he strikes up a good friendship with the Yoder family, who are employing him to work in their carpentry shop. But it takes him longer to warm up to Suzanne Yoder, an unconventional young woman who prefers being in the outdoors and woodwork to cooking and sewing. But Suzanne looks just like Phoebe, and Titus can’t help but look of Suzanne and remember how Phoebe broke his heart when she went to explore the English world. Will Titus’s memories of Phoebe put a rift between him and Suzanne, or will he learn to let go of the past and discover what God has planned for him in Kentucky?

I will advise that while I tried to start this book with an open mind, I’ve never been a big fan of Wanda Brunstetter. While she’s incredibly popular in the Amish genre, which contains many of my favourite books, I’ve yet to figure out what is so appealing about her books. While many of them contain standard romance plots, I often find her writing stilted and her characters lacking in personality. Despite this, I determined to give her works another try with The Journey, which many of my friends have praised. The plot of this novel, while being fairly predictable, did sound like it had promise, particularly with Suzanne being such an unusual character for an Amish novel.

Unfortunately I found it very difficult to enjoy this book. As with previous Brunstetter novels (On Her Own, Plain and Fancy and Kelly’s Chance, to name those that I’ve read) I found the dialogue very stilted and fake-sounding, as were the internal thoughts of many of the characters. This was particularly jarring as the majority of The Journey is dialogue. I would say that at least 80% of this book was dialogue, and while normally I love conversation-driven novels, there was barely any description at all. Books in the Amish genre really need descriptions of the scenery and day-to-day life to make them seem authentic. Sadly, The Journey was very lacking in this department and could really have been set anywhere, if for the occasionally Pennsylvanian Dutch word and mention of a buggy. The Penn Dutch speech was pretty irritating in that whenever a character said anything in Dietsch, another character would then repeat the same sentence back almost word for word so that the reader would understand what the word meant. This sounded incredibly fake, and happened too often for me not to notice.

The plot jumped around too much for my liking, leaping back and forth between Titus in Kentucky and his family back home in Pennsylvania, and occasionally over to Phoebe in California. It seemed really unnecessary to include Phoebe’s sections as they really didn’t add much to the plot, other than to show that she wasn’t enjoying herself in the English world. The scenes in Pennsylvania were much the same, and seemed to repeat a lot of what had happened to Titus in Kentucky as word of his new life spread to all of her relatives. More often than not, these sections ended up detracting from the plot rather than adding to it.

There were a lot of dramatic events in this book, far too many than is realistic. On several occasions characters are nearly run off the road in their buggies - by a motorbike, a horse and wild dogs - and if these events had been connected I wouldn't have minded, but they weren't! These three events were never given any sort of plausible explanation that linked to the plot, and seemed mainly to function to bring Titus and Suzanne closer together in the aftermath of their experience. The first two events I shrugged off, but I’ll admit that I nearly laughed out loud at the appearance of the feral dogs. There's also a situation surrounding some stolen money which is cleared up far too quickly and easily to be at all believable, and then is never mentioned again by any of the characters. It felt like the author kept trying to insert some sort of mystery into the book but then resolved the situations too fast to actually make the book mysterious. And don't even get me started on all the deaths and tragedies that occurred with this family – is it really possible for one family to suffer so many traumas? Some of them seemed quite unnecessary, and the way that the characters dealt with them seemed rather offensive to anyone who has lost a relative or a child.

I have a few minor complaints about this book which, coupled with my issues with the dialogue, plot-jumping and unrealistic nature of some of the events in this book, ended up taking away from what could have been a fairly enjoyable reading experience. Firstly, The Journey apparently follows on from another series of books as numerous references are made to Zach having being kidnapped as a child. Yet for new readers, this situation isn’t explained very well and left me feeling very confused. There’s nothing in the synopsis to suggest that this series follows another one, so new readers beware of this. I’d also like to caution that while this book is marketed as Christian fiction, the spiritual aspect is very minor. The characters only ever talked to God when they were in dire need of help, but otherwise never mentioned Him, which is particularly unsettling for a novel about the Amish where God is normally central to their community and way of life. There’s a semi-conversion scene towards the end of the novel, which is one of my pet hates in Christian fiction because it is so rarely done in a tactful and satisfying manner.

While I did not enjoy this novel, I have read several glowing reviews of it and would encourage potential readers to read those before making a final decision on whether to read The Journey. As much as I hate to write a critical review, this is my honest opinion and I think it necessary to share my views on a book from one of my favourite genres. I’ve read many wonderful new books from this genre that have released this year, and The Journey just doesn’t measure up to novels from newcomers like Kelly Long, Barbara Cameron or Ruth Reid. On a more positive note, fans of Brunstetter will probably enjoy this book as it’s much the same as her earlier novels, but this also means that readers who dislike her work will probably have the same reaction as I did.

Review title provided courtesy of Barbour Publishing.

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