When Will runs away from home as a teen, he must lie to hide his identity and keep his father from finding him and dragging him home. He lies about his last name and where he is from in order to explain why in the midst of World War II he has never signed up for the draft. He lies about his age to join the military.
Driving to Ohio for one of his annual penetential visits, Will muses in the night. “He was a halfway man…at that very moment halfway home, and in the larger moment halfway through his life—a life defined by half-truth. Leaning toward the open window to catch a bit of the night wind, he ran a hand over his head. Even his hair was half gone. He said half a prayer to half a God and held out half a hope. Perhaps he would only be condemned for half an eternity.” (p. 255)
And yet even his half prayer is eventually answered by a whole God.
The book is structured as memories of the past when Will and Riley, broken by alcohol and drugs, return to Ohio for old Levi’s funeral. Over the years Will’s relationship with Levi has thawed slightly. When a bitter Riley refuses to acknowledge that God could have had anything to do with it, Will explains, “The day I stopped trying to earn my father’s forgiveness and gave him mine—that was the day things started to change.” (p. 373)
Will “begins to see that every man’s failure dips its roots into the previous generation and drops its seeds into the next. Blame, as a wise man once told him, is the province of the innocent and the omniscient.” (p. 292)
Will’s conversion is subtle. The strict rules of the Old Order Amish remind us of how easy it is for all of us to measure ourselves by the wrong yardstick. We are all flawed. We aren’t saved by faithful church attendance or by voting for the right political party any more than we are saved by driving a horse and buggy and going without electricity.
Cramer’s view of the Amish faith is not a nostalgic longing for simplicity in the midst of our mechanized and secularized world. He presents their religion as harshly legalistic, governed by arbitrary rules enforced by authoritarian patriarchs. And yet he presents them with a deep and powerful empathy. They are flawed as we are flawed, in need of God’s grace as much as we are.
Don’t read Levi’s Will if you are looking for romance. Will and Helen’s marriage is deeply damaged and strained for most of the book, but divorce is not an option for respectable people in the 1950s and 60s. In the end these two remind me of Tevya and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. The truce they called for the sake of appearances has become a habit that just might turn out to be real love.
I am anxious to look back at The Daughters of Caleb Bender and remind myself of who Levi Mullet was in his young and idealistic days. I still recommend those books, but this one is much more profound in its exploration of love, grace, forgiveness and our flawed human nature. Definitely worth more than one read.
Dale will be checking in here, so feel free to direct your comments or questions to him.