Review: Paradise Valley, by Dale Cramer

Paradise Valley, by Dale Cramer (Bethany House, 2011)

In 1921, Caleb Bender uproots his family from their farm and their beloved Amish community. To stay in Ohio would be to see his younger children forced into the public school system and the world’s way of thinking, thanks to a new law made by people who don’t understand his people.

Caleb’s not a hasty man, and after much prayer he realizes moving to another state won’t be enough to avoid this spreading law. When he discovers good farmland for sale in the mountain region of Mexico, he knows where they need to go.

The Benders are scouts for a larger group of families who will join them the following year… if they survive the bandits. Leaving one married daughter behind with her family, Caleb takes the rest of his extended clan (eldest child 27, youngest, 11). Unless I miscounted, there are 15 in the party.

The main female character, Rachel, 16, has to part from the young man she hoped to marry. Miriam, slightly older, fears moving to a place with no prospective husbands. And Aaron, 21, leaves the grave of his twin.

The novel actually begins some time before the Benders board the train. Dale Cramer takes time to let us get to know the family and their community, and to let us understand their faith and the seriousness of this state law that makes them flee. By the time they go, we’re definitely rooting for them.

I’ve only read a couple of other Amish novels, and they didn’t engage me. Paradise Valley brought the culture of this Old Order community to life in a way that caught my imagination. These aren’t rigid, legalistic people, although I’m sure some in the community are. Caleb and his family are sincerely devoted to God, and they want to please Him more than anything else.

They stick to their convictions. Even if it means moving to a new country. The young Mexican man they befriend, Domingo, observes Caleb’s behaviour and tells him, “You are either the most honourable man I have ever met or the most foolish. I have not decided which.” (p. 219)

Caleb isn’t sure either.

Paradise Valley is a heart-warming Amish historical with richly-textured characters and setting and a plot that kept me turning pages. I don’t know how fast Mr. Cramer can write, but I wanted to go out and get a copy of the next book in the Daughters of Caleb Bender series right away.

I’ve been a fan of Dale Cramer since reading Bad Ground, and along with his characters and stories I enjoy finding the gems he hides in the narrative. Here are my two favourites from Paradise Valley:

When Caleb has been praying for direction about the situation in Ohio:

“It was an answer, a sign—he recognized that still small voice, the incendiary subtlety. A little shiver ran through him.” (p. 70)

I got a little shiver at that “incendiary subtlety.”

And as Caleb is saying goodbye to his farm:

“He knew in his bones that he did not really own the land, nor did the land own him. They were just old friends.” (p. 95)

I’ve talked a lot about Caleb’s role in the story, but he’s not the only point of view character and this is definitely not a male-first book. Rachel has the main female role, and the women and girls far outnumber the men in the Bender clan. For Rachel and Miriam, the journey leads them to discover their own strengths, and although they despair of love and marriage, all may not be lost.

Male or female, if you like family sagas, adventure, romance, American/Mexican stories from the 1920’s, pioneer tales, strong characters and relationships, you’ll like Paradise Valley. I haven’t read widely in this genre, but I suspect Mr. Cramer has just raised the bar for Amish fiction.

You can read a sample chapter of Paradise Valley, and check out an interview with Dale Cramer about Paradise Valley. There’s also an online readers’ discussion guide for Paradise Valley.

Dale Cramer is a Christy award winner. Visit his website to learn more about him and his books, or to hear more from him, check out his blog.

[Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.]

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