When Leora Ebersole sees the small plane crash in her Old Order Mennonite community, she has no idea it’s a foreshadowing of things to come. Soon after the young pilot, Moses Hughes, regains consciousness, they realize his instruments were destroyed by the same power outage that killed the electricity at the community store, where Englischers are stranded with dead cell phones and cars that won’t start.
Moses offers a sobering theory, but no one can know how drastically life is about to change. With the only self-sustaining food supply in the region, the Pacifist community is forced to forge an alliance with the handful of stranded Englischers in an effort to protect not only the food but their very lives.
In the weeks that follow, Leora, Moses, and the community will be tested as never before, requiring them to make decisions they never thought possible. Whom will they help and whom will they turn away? When the community receives news of a new threat, everyone must decide how far they’re willing to go to protect their beliefs and way of life.
Jabil studies me with those somber, dark eyes, but I am unable to decipher them. What do they convey? Sadness, jealousy . . . a fusion of both? He shifts his gaze away. “I overheard that they’re thinking about expelling him from the community allowing him to take only his belongings like the edict says.”
My protective instinct rises up, righteous and maternal. “Forget the edict! He can’t be expelled. He can barely walk! How’s he supposed to survive in a place like we saw last night?”
Jabil shrugs. “He should’ve thought it through. We all should’ve thought it through. It was an unlawful attempt: trying to get ahead by taking what is not ours. If I could do it over, I wouldn’t have gone along, and I wouldn’t have let you go.”
” ‘Let’ me go?” I repeat, incredulous. “Moses was right: it’s not your place to tell me what I can or cannot do, Jabil Snyder, just as it was not your place to vote on my behalf. You know I’m not interested in courtship, and yet you still try to tell me what to do and think.”
Jabil folds his arms, his eyebrows raised in shock. I take my glasses off and stare up at him in defiance, forcing him to blink first. He turns from me to stare down the lane, his breath coming out hard and fast. I feel a bittersweet satisfaction, knowing I have the upper hand.
The silence continues. I turn to stare down the lane as well, trying to comprehend how someone could’ve spied on us when we left so early in the morning, since even dairy farmer Elias Lehman would have been asleep.
“Wait. Did you tell on Moses? Did you turn him in?”
Jabil doesn’t say anything, only stares at the pilot’s wreckage with his jaw throbbing.
“Are you jealous of him? Is that it?” I step closer until I can smell the unwashed tang of his skin. Our breaths rise, the morning sun knifing between our bodies. “You thought that because I turned you down, I must be going after someone else?” I stare at his profile until he looks over at me. Then, guiltily, he looks away. My body trembles with rage at the hypocrisy of this man standing before me, pacifist though he might be, who would wield his power to crush a man he perceives as his foe. It seems I know the real Jabil as little as he knows the real me.
He says, “I’m just trying to protect you.”
“I don’t need protecting.”
Jabil pivots from me, his face stricken. “I hope you’re right,” he murmurs, so quietly that I have to strain to hear. We don’t say anything else, just stare at the field between our two houses, as if joined and separated by the wreckage of Moses’s plane.
When I first heard about this book – a dystopian set in an Old Order Mennonite community in Northern Montana – I really had no idea what to expect, but I knew I wanted to read it. From the very first sentence, I was spellbound: “Buffered by grassland, the collision is strangely quiet.” And ‘strangely quiet’ perfectly describes the atmosphere of coiled tension in this novel as this ad hoc community braces itself for what is to come.
While the premise (and cover) initially drew me to this book, it was characters and the writing that hooked me once I picked it up. Nineteen-year-old Leora is a member of the Mennonite community, but her situation is anything but orthodox. Two years ago her father disappeared, making theirs the only broken family in the community. Her mother’s death shortly thereafter left Leora with the responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings (Seth, aged 13, and Anna, aged 16) and her ailing grandmother. This would be enough responsibility in itself, but a childhood accident ten years ago has left Anna with permanent brain damage. She is non-verbal and approaches the world with childlike wonder and naivety. And Leora holds herself responsible for this, too.
Moses Hughes defies death for the second time when his plane crashes in the small Mennonite community. Twelve months ago he received an honourable discharge from the military, but the event that precipitated his discharge now shadows his every step. He, better than anyone, knows the price that must sometimes be paid in order to preserve lives, and it is his suggestion that the Mennonite community forge an alliance with the Englischers stranded in their midst: they provide food and shelter in return for protection from the rampaging that is sure to come.
The situation and the arrival of Moses bring many of the latent issues in Leora’s life to the fore. As a woman with neither father nor husband to speak on her behalf, she has no voice in the community’s decision-making. Jabil, the Bishop’s nephew, would gladly give her his name, but she is not sure she can accept. And now she finds herself drawn to Moses, in spite of their differences, and I have to say the quiet, but undeniable romantic tension between them was beautifully done.
Amidst all of this, Leora begins to question the beliefs that are the basis of her entire way of life. Does she truly trust God to protect her and her family? Can she stand by passively, like the martyrs of old, if her family or her community is attacked? Can they offer hospitality to all at the risk of their own health and safety? And what do their current troubles have to do with her father’s disappearance? Meanwhile, Moses begins to wonder whether there hasn’t been a higher plan behind his survival in the face of overwhelming odds after all…
The glue that held it all together was the subtle artistry in the writing – its pacing and rhythm, the nuanced word choices, the characters’ words and actions. It was restrained, yet so expressive. Even the few instances of ‘could care less’ (instead of ‘couldn’t care less’), one of my tic-inducing pet peeves, didn’t trip me up for long. The story was also written in the first person present tense, which I thought perfectly suited the mood and tone of the novel.
This is definitely a novel worth the reading – and worth thinking about. Do any of us know what we are – or are not – capable of until a situation forces our hand? Just be warned that the story is to be continued, but it gave me enough to be satisfied with its conclusion. For now… 🙂
I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
Release date: 1 June 2016
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Author’s website: http://www.jolinapetersheim.com/