Reviewed by June J. McInerney
Amish comprise the majority of Lancaster County, where tourists clogging small towns ogle a quaint culture whose way of life, deeply rooted in Germanic/Dutch traditions, eschews “modern” electricity, language, music, fashions, alcohol, and motor-driven vehicles. A tourist myself, I often wonder what it would be like to be neighbors.
In An Amish Gift (October 2012), the fourth of Cynthia Keller’s Amish-themed novels, Jennie Davis and her family—husband, Shep; their two teenagers, Tim and Willa; and Scout, their loving Labrador—find the true meaning of giving when they move into the heart of Lancaster farm country. An inheritance from Shep’s unknown, elderly distant cousin includes a small, neglected, run-down house next to a dairy farm and, in town, a grimy, bicycle shop. As the new proprietor, Shep is determined to “make it work” (42), despite previous failures that left his family in dire straights. Disappointed with their new circumstances, Tim and Willa set up barriers and distance themselves from their parents and new schoolmates. Jennie, hoping the house and business “with no [financial] strings attached” (9) will be a “fresh beginning” (7), tries to put a positive spin on their situation.
But Jennie soon finds herself left alone trying to make the house a home and keep the family together. On an early morning walk with Scout, she meets Mattie Fisher, Amish mother of eight, who, with her husband, Abraham, owns the large diary farm a half-mile from the Davises’. Jennie becomes friends with Mattie, drawing strength from her calming demeanor and quiet, stoic resilience. Their families soon intermingle. Bonds of friendship form between Tim and Peter, Mattie’s eldest; Willa and Nan, Mattie’s daughter; and even aloof Shep becomes close to Abraham, helping to mend fences and milk cows. In this charming novel, Keller paces Jennie and Mattie through a year of tragedies and heartaches as the two neighboring families face, share, and overcome daily trials and tribulations together.
I really enjoyed this easy-to-read, yet intricately poignant, novel which can be enjoyed by both older teens and adults. Keller paints a realistic “insider’s view” of Amish life, emphasizing how its seemingly “simplistic” culture can give complex gifts of wisdom and strength to even the most troubled and obdurate “outsider.” Jennie’s innermost thoughts and feelings are revealed as she tackles hard tasks to bring warmth, love, and stability back into her family. The straightforward plotline, also relating Jennie’s and Shep’s past, is true-to-life. The protagonists are so carefully sculpted with intimate insights into their psyches that I felt as if the Davis and Fisher families were friends of mine, living right next door.
This is a great read that will buoy the reader up with joy and tear-jerking warmth as Jennie shares both tangible and intangible gifts of the heart with her friends and family.
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