Posted by: thatjen | July 1, 2011

Why, yes, I do teach close reading and critical thinking. Why do you ask?

I don’t know about other librarians, but this one hardly ever gets to read. At work, I am surrounded by more than 10,000 books. My bedside “table” is actually a six-foot tall bookcase, filled primarily with books I hope someday to read. We have books and bookcases in every room of our house. But the sad truth is, it’s a rare moment indeed when I am reading an actual book. The internet is largely to blame – most of the time I might spend reading books is given over to reading email, Facebook, blogs and boards – and life with kids, a house, and a job takes up the rest of the time. I’ve taken up reading magazines because the articles are short and I can squeeze one or two in while brushing my teeth and before falling asleep. The books that have made it past the obstacles tend to be non-fiction: parenting, organizing, health, and teaching, and since they are read in 2-3 page snippets, mostly get put aside after a chapter or two anyway.

Summer is the one time I do get to read, but even then I am mostly reading children’s books in a feeble attempt to stay abreast of some of the avalanche of new books my students are or should be reading, or reading to my kids (true confession: we don’t read to our own kids much during the school year because our schedules are so insane). So I leapt at the chance to review a book when it showed up in my inbox. A novel! For adults! Romance, even! Very little redeeming value! And heck, I’d even get some Amazon credit for doing it! How could I turn it down???

In all seriousness, it sounded like a fascinating book – a coming of age story with some romance set among the Amish. So I happily filled out the review application and was delighted to receive the email indicating I would be on the review team. A few weeks later a padded envelope arrived, thick with the promise of a new book FOR GROWNUPS! I opened it and found the anticipated copy of Beside Still Waters, by Tricia Goyer.

The classic romance-style cover did not disappoint, showing a young woman looking wistfully out a window as bright sun washed over her, lighting her face with hope. I flipped to the back cover and skimmed the jacket copy: family tragedy, young love, conflict… and God. A lot of God. And then, the author bio.

It turns out that in my eagerness, I missed a few key words in the description. I’d failed to notice the semi-oblique* and even the overt indicators that this book was not exactly in my comfort zone. I had so thoroughly overlooked them that my first thought was, “That was a dirty trick! How can you recruit people for a book review and not tell them it’s a religious book??” Full of righteous (ha!) indignation, I checked my email for the initial email about the book, only to find that I’d deleted it. Ooops. But the organizer cheerfully forwarded it, and I discovered that there was no trickery, just good old user error. Right there in the fourth paragraph it clearly stated that the author is “known as a writer of Christian fiction.”  D’oh!

You may be wondering if I am so opposed to Christian fiction, how I could possibly have overlooked the work “Amish”. Well, I didn’t. But there’s a difference for me between Amish and Christian. Christian in our culture often signifies born-again Christian, and with that comes proselytizing. The Amish, on the other hand, are not known for attempts to convert others. I enjoy reading books about other experiences and other cultures, and often tell my students that one of the wonders of books is the way that they can open our minds and take us to new places, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. But just as I do not try to push my beliefs or ways of living on others unless they ask, I don’t want anyone to try to convert me to any way of thinking or being (buh-bye Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist door-knockers). So seeing the multiple God references and description of the author as a Christian fiction writer made my heart sink with apprehension.

However, a commitment is a commitment, and I’ve surely read many a book I wouldn’t have chosen (The Day My Butt Went Psycho, anyone?) in my time reviewing children’s books, so I knew I had to read it. I shoved it in a corner and ignored it, but eventually pulled it out and opened it.

Reader, I liked it. I really, really liked it.

Ms. Goyer has done a thorough job of researching Amish life and portraying it in a detailed, captivating manner. Her characters are well-developed, likeable, and realistic. The pacing is good, and the predictable plotline has enough tension and surprises in it to keep the reader engaged. Unfortunately, the book is poorly edited, with enough significant typos (including a misspelling of Marianna, the MAIN CHARACTER’S NAME) to raise my hackles, but otherwise it is a decent showing: quality paper, glossy cover with eye-catching art, good binding. I sped through the book, enjoying the portrayal of Amish life and culture (which seemed realistic to this “Englischer” although I am not at all knowledgeable about Amish ways).

Until I got to page 129. A mere five pages after his introduction, Ben, the soon-to-be-rival for Marianna’s heart, was irritating me enough that I considered abandoning the book mid-read. Furthermore, the author was irritating me, too. Upon introducing Ben, Ms. Goyer abruptly shifts the point of view of the story to include his voice. Up to that point, more than halfway through the book, the story is told entirely from Marianna’s perspective and thoughts via a third person narrator. Suddenly, we are also presented with events as seen from Ben’s viewpoint, and allowed to share in his thinking, too. It’s rather jarring, so far into the story — and I found it all the more so because Ben’s thoughts are so foreign to me. He seems to be a born-again Christian. Regardless of the label applied, he is without a doubt intent upon bringing others to his perspective on God.

I was horrified that the author would spend so much time learning about the Amish and their lives only to set up a narrative in which the main character is converted away from her faith, yet Ben’s arrival in the story certainly made it seem as if that was her intent. As if it were a horror movie I couldn’t bear to watch, I set down the book and left it for several days until I decided I had to know. Would Ms. Goyer go through with it? Would she have the audacity to convert Marianna?

Luckily, there’s no need for a spoiler alert here. Beside Still Waters turns out to be only the first in a series of novels featuring Marianna and her family, and although a number of plot points are wrapped up at the end of the story, the reader is left unsatisfied as to which beau Marianna will choose.

After reading the book, like Marianna, I too am torn. Should my distaste for the overt proselytizing win out? Does the fact that the story turns out to be rooted in the true experiences of Amish people the author knows cancel out my discomfort about the somewhat voyeuristic/exploitive use of the Amish community only to (perhaps) convert the main character out of her original faith? In the end, I really can’t decide. I may even have to read the sequels to make up my mind….

*(Semi-oblique???  Hello, title?? “Beside Still Waters”? I *was* raised in a church, regardless of my current agnosticism, but apparently my brain was in off mode.)

Disclaimer: I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of the Beside Still Waters Campaign and received a copy of the book and a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate.

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