Calm Before the Storm (review)

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Calm Before the Storm by Janice L. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The year is 1914. All is idyllic on the Hildebrandt’s Succoth estate in Crimea—but for the death of mother. This has left the well-to-do Hildebrandt family (father Heinrich, children Katarina [16], Maria [14], Peter, Nicholas, and Anna) wifeless, motherless, and without a teacher. Enter Johann Suderman, a young teacher from the Mennonite Molotschna Colony, whom Heinrich soon employs to tutor the youngest children.

The beginning of World War I together with growing tensions between the land-wealthy Mennonites and their poor Russian neighbours heightens suspense and brings a sense of foreboding. Through Johann’s Russian friend Paul Tekanin we see Bolshevism and the revolutionary movement take root. The Hildebrandt’s and Johann’s connections of family and friends in the Molotschna Colony make us privy to premonitions of change coming there as well.

A blossoming romance, that ripens like the sweet fruit of the Succoth orchard, ramps up emotional interest. Watching characters flesh out gradations of spiritual faith, from rote religion to a deeply personal relationship with God, challenges us to examine where we are in the practice of the faith we claim to have.

Calm Before the Storm is beautifully written. Characters are believable and sympathetic (even the not-so-favourite ones). Dick does a great job of placing us in the setting with masterful broad-brush descriptions of the landscape to fine-painted details of cottage and barn. I could all but taste the familiar foods—the zwieback, rollkuchen, borscht, and cracklings of my youth—which load the tables of these forefathers and foremothers.

Calm Before the Storm is a wonderful read for any lover of historical fiction and a must-read for the student of Mennonite history. I can’t wait for the release of Book 2, Eye of the Storm, hopefully later this year.

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Glimpses of Paradise (review)

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Glimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920sGlimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920s by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We first meet the main characters in Glimpses of Paradise, 17 year-old Doyle Lawrence (athlete and poet) and 16 year-old Zenobia (Zee) Miller (want-to-be movie star), in the spring of 1916 in Zenith, Nebraska. Doyle, fascinated by the unpredictable and colorful Zee, tells his brother later that evening that he’ll marry Zee someday despite what their lawyer father will say. For her part, though Zee senses his attraction, she wants only to be in the movies.

Their ways soon part. Doyle enlists in the army and goes off to war. Zee runs away from her straight-laced preacher father to chase her dream.

This historical tale by James Scott Bell (first published in 2005) explores many aspects of the years from 1916 to 1925—the war itself, the fate of returning soldiers, the rise of Hollywood’s popularity, and its seamy underside. Concurrent with these secular movements is a spiritual stream personified by the historical preacher R. A. Torrey (a preacher and Bible teacher who helped found Biola University). His sermons and writings play not a little part in determining Doyle’s and Zee’s fates.

I thoroughly enjoyed this substantial novel. I’ve read many of James Scott Bell’s books on the writing craft and it is interesting to see how he puts his advice into practice. His characters are complex and believable. His facility in describing action contrasts, in this book, with quiet moments like the one war-damaged Doyle experiences on returning home after combat:

“He found himself fixated on one brown leaf cloning to a branch. It looked stubborn, alone, like a solitary prayer unheard” – Kindle Location 1553.

What I appreciate most about this book, though, is its unequivocal Christian message, not only as explained by Dr. Torrey but lived out in the choices and destinies of his characters.

If you like fat, informative, and interesting Christian historicals, try this tome of Americana. It won’t disappoint.

Glimpses of Paradise is part of my own Kindle collection.
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The Wings of Morning (review)

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The Wings of Morning (Snapshots in History, #1)The Wings of Morning by Murray Pura

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amish beauty Lyyndaya Kurtz is in love with Jude Whetstone, the blacksmith’s son. Trouble is, Jude has taken a shine to the new invention the flying machine. The year is 1917, the location the Lapp Colony of Paradise, Pennsylvania in Murray Pura’s The Wings of Morning. It is the first book in the “Snapshots In History” series which sets out to “…tell compelling romantic stories about faith-filled men and women caught up in the high drama of past historical events … the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, and the American Revolution” p. 301.

Jude’s flying skill soon comes to the attention of the air force brass who are recruiting pilots for the WWI air effort against Germany. The recruitment office rejects Jude’s appeal to remain at home on the basis of a religious exemption and round up a slew of enlistment-aged Paradise boys in an attempt to force him to change his mind. There is joy in Paradise when their youth return home. But Jude is not with them. Word is that they were released because Jude couldn’t stand to be away from flying and willingly joined the air force.

As the story unfolds, we experience the war with Jude. Meanwhile, Lyyndaya lives through their separation, made more bitter by the colony’s ban on him. Will they ever be reunited?

The characters are well drawn, especially the green-eyed tom-boyish Lyyndaya. I appreciated the sympathetic portrayal of some of the colony’s leaders (especially Bishop Zook), which I found a departure from other Amish fiction I’ve read where leaders are often shown as authoritarian and unfeeling. This Amish book differs as well in the way it depicts their beliefs as faith-nourishing (vs. merely a legalistic form). It also grapples at length with their pacifistic stance.

Pura has a broad understanding of history and the detail with which he pictures things like the kinds of planes flown during WWI gave me confidence in his portrayal of other historical aspects of the story with which I am unfamiliar (like whether or not Amish people actually entered military service during times of war).

Pura addresses themes of pacificism, laying down one’s life for one’s friends (sacrifice), and what things besides military involvement could constitute service to one’s country and community. Of course this is also a tale of romantic love.

This lively and interesting story (the first I’ve read by this prolific writer) whets my appetite for more books by Canadian author Murray Pura. I’ve put his series “The Danforths of Lancashire” (Ashton Park and Beneath the Dover Sky) on my ‘want-to-read’ list.

The Wings of Morning is part of my own fiction collection.

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