An Amish Christmas by Cynthia Keller (Contemporary Novel, 2010).
I decided I needed a break in reading the batch of zombie novels I’m reviewing for another author’s website (check out dmdraper.com/reviews, if that interests you), I picked up a copy of this at my local library. it was a welcome, maybe even a necessary change of pace–literary palate cleansing, if you will.
The Hobarts are your basic upper-middle class suburban family living comfortably in Charlotte, North Carolina. There’s housewife Meg, her husband James and their three kids: Will, Lizzie and Sam. Their successful, even privileged, life has lately begun to show strain. Meg is vaguely frustrated by Will and Lizzie, both teenagers and spoiled. And normally loving James has grown short-tempered and secretive of late.
Thanksgiving Day is at hand and Meg is about to serve the big celebratory meal she always does when James breaks down. He admits he lost his high-priced job, downsized in the midst of a economic downturn. This happened in AUGUST and he’s been living a lie since, leaving for ‘work’ regularly, only to hang out aimlessly at coffee shops. Worse, he tried to make it all better by sinking all their savings (even the deed to their house) into a real estate deal that was just revealed to be a fraud.
All this, without telling Meg? Yep.
Now the family is suddenly, totally broke. Oh, and they have about two weeks to leave the beautiful house they no longer own! I must point out that in matters of evictions, things just don’t happen quite that abruptly–but let that pass.
The point is that these people are suddenly faced with the utter collapse of the lifestyle they take for granted. Forced to relocate on short notice in the one car they own outright, they face the humiliating prospect of moving to upstate New York to live with Meg’s very disapproving and narrow-minded parents.
The drive north carries them to central Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, where an accident strands them. Nobody is seriously hurt and Amish man whose buggy they nearly smashed insists on bringing them home. The whole extended Lutz family is breathtakingly eager to help them in any way they can–it’s just what they do, how they live their lives.
But while 9-year-old Sam is soon delighted by the old-time lifestyle of these gentle and generous people, the materialistic teens are snide and ungrateful. Honestly, their reactions to what is a very different culture are so over-the-top bratty that readers will likely be repelled (I certainly was). Meg and James are suitably appalled by Will and Lizzie’s actions and attitudes. But the simmering, unresolved anger between the betrayed wife and excuse-making husband keep them doing much in the way of effective parenting.
The swarm of good-hearted Amish folk are, of course, a bit too good to be true. I kept waiting for somebody in the Lutz clan to snap at these self-important and immature “English” (as the Amish refer to pretty much everyone who isn’t of their faith).
If the Hobart family are near-stereotypes of suburban American privilege gone wrong, the Lutzes are a little too idealized for my taste. That’s not to say they don’t have their challenges and human problems. It’s just that when dealing with such a mass of humanity (huge even by the standards of Amish families), even the famed (and real) hospitality and tolerance shown here is never quite so universal. There are Amish folks who are occasionally surly, even ignoble–you’d just never suspect it judging from this bunch.
But of course everything works out well in the end.
Exposure to the saintly Lutz family has a civilizing effect on the Hobarts. Meg and James reconcile and, with the help of their new friends, not only see a way to get back on their feet financially, but also remake their marriage into a true partnership. Will and Lizzie finally get over themselves as well, although it takes frustratingly long. Young Sam, in contrast, fits right in–he’s a sweet but real kid.
Now this is a ‘feel good’ novel to be sure (once you get past the willful ignorance personified by Will and Lizzie). Is it totally realistic? Sorry, no. But it’s also a decently written story of cultures clashing and people growing, learning from others’ examples. Also, there is a subtle critique of the social/cultural emptiness of modern existence.
Maybe not a great book, but still entertaining and, yes, in the end kind of heartwarming.