Friday, March 16, 2012

The Scent of Cherry Blossoms: A Romance from the Heart of Amish Country, by Cindy Woodsmall


Things have been tense in the Martin household.  Nineteen-year-old Annie tries to ignore her brothers' antics, but there's no denying that their drinking and swearing and gambling is a far cry from appropriate behavior for Old Order Mennonites.  When her mother sends her off to stay with her grandfather in Apple Ridge, Pennsylvania, she's relieved to get away from all the fighting.  But Apple Ridge brings its own challenges, as Annie is reminded of her affection for quiet, stuttering Aden Zook.  As a young girl, she'd admired him; as a grown woman, she realizes he's everything she's looking for in a man.  And Aden seems equally taken with her.  There's only one problem: he's Old Order Amish, and the two are forbidden to intermarry, or even court.  With Annie's grandfather threatening to put the Zook family diner out of business, and Aden's crippled brother doing everything he can to tear them apart, will Annie and Aden ever find a way to be together?  Can they overcome the obstacles in their way?  Should they?

This books marks my first foray into the growing genre of Amish fiction.  And I have to say, I suspect it may not be the genre for me.

Everyone in the book is sort of . . . vaguely nice and good-intentioned (with the possible exception of Annie's boorish brothers).  When they disagree, they do so quietly and respectfully--even when the heroine berates herself for being 'disrespectful' of her elders, her behavior is far from rude or impertinent.  I realize this may be a realistic portrayal of the communities involved, and it sounds like the author did her research, but that doesn't exactly make for scintillating reading. The whole book was kind of a snooze, really.  Granted, I read a lot of sci fi and horror fiction, so I may not be the best judge.  But I also have a fondness for the 19th century comedy of manners, and nobody gets eaten or kidnapped by pirates in those either.

And anyway, the extreme deference and obedience seems to come and go at the author's whim--for all her talk of submission, Annie does not hesitate to sneak out of the house in the dead of night to meet Aden in the cherry orchard.  For two people raised in such a rule-driven culture, they are surprisingly quick to abandon the rules that have governed their lives and to conduct a clandestine courtship.  Nothing untoward happens--they never even kiss--but the mere fact of their 'relationship' is a violation of the standards of both their communities.

Annie and Aden's inconsistency is mirrored by the community at large (or at least their families).  This inter-order courtship starts out as, essentially, anathema and betrayal of a vow before God that will destroy Annie's chaste reputation.  Then the author seems to change her mind, and it becomes more of an old fashioned idea of Annie's grandfather (and thus more of a practical obstacle, given his power over the Zooks). By the end of the book, it's just a minor detail that everyone will get over in practically no time at all.

This sort of 'forbidden romance' is always troubling to me.  On the one hand, it can be reminiscent of baseless and immoral anti-miscegenation laws, where the law preventing the hero from marrying the heroine is plainly wrong, even evil, and should be ignored.  But here, the conclusion is not that the law is bad.  Neither of them decides to abandon their community (though of course one will have to join the other's community once they marry).  Annie and Aden still want to be a part of their respective churches.  They just think they should be an exception, because they're destined for one another. Love conquers all, as they say.  But should it?

Annie and Aden are troubled not just about the community standard, but about God's.  They have both vowed before God to be faithful members of their communities, and that means not marrying anyone outside the community.  Period.  Therefore, their courtship violates not just community rules, but their own promises.  They both eventually decide this shouldn't keep them apart, and Aden even decides that he is 'free in Christ' to break his vow and that God will forgive him.  Which may be true, in a way, but hardly makes for good theology or good decision making. This 'forbidden love' starts to look a bit more like a married man who claims he is 'allowed' to break his vow to his wife in order to be with the woman he loves.

Then, too, there is the inevitable effect on the community.  Annie's grandfather, as part owner of the Zook family diner, has the ability to put them out of business, and threatens to do just that if Aden doesn't stop courting Annie.  By continuing their relationship, Annie and Aden know that they are upsetting not just their community in general, but their family.  Without the diner, the Zooks may not be able to feed themselves--Aden's brother is crippled and can no longer do manual labor.  His father also has severe physical limitations, and the other siblings are too young to be much help.  Annie and Aden ultimately decide that their choice to be together is, essentially, not about anyone else.  In other words, once again, love conquers all, even if it means your family starves.  Or something.

Aside from the moral implications of this ostensibly moral genre, the writing itself is not that impressive.  The supporting characters bordered on caricatures, but Annie and Aden, though mind-numbingly nice and not all that interesting, were decently drawn. It goes without saying that an Amish romance is going to be cheesy, and there were definitely some eye-roll-worthy lines in this one.  But for some reason, they weren't as fun.  I think a lot of cheesy writers know they're being cheesy and over the top.  Here, the tone is serious, even sincere.  And that makes me feel kind of bad about the above-mentioned eye-rolling.  Because everyone in this book is so nice, and I'm sure the author is terribly nice as well, and I just . . . I feel bad for thinking the book was . . . kind of dumb.

There.  I said it.

Bottom line:  This may be a perfectly serviceable Amish romance novel (and the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon seem to indicate that it is).  But if you're looking for something with a bit more zing--something to make you laugh, or even cry, or something to scare or excite or entertain or . . . anything you, for that matter--you might be better off looking elsewhere

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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