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Book Review: Paradise Valley by Dale Cramer

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The clatter of the police’s “Black Mariah” not only disturbs the peace of Caleb Bender’s Amish farmyard on a January morning in 1922, but also changes forever the lives of 15-year-old Rachel Bender and her siblings.

Caleb is hauled off to jail that morning for keeping his children out of school. When, a few weeks on, the school-aged children of Caleb and other imprisoned men are apprehended by the state and forced to attend the local public school, the men relent, send their kids to school, and are freed. But later that spring Caleb finds an ad for farmland in Mexico irresistible. Perhaps a home in a new country will give him the freedom to raise his family according to his conscience. In Paradise Valley Dale Cramer tells the story of the Benders’ move from their Ohio farm to a lush valley in the mountains of Mexico and their new start there.

Cramer has given us an interesting cast of fictional characters through whom to experience this historic event (based on Cramer’s own family history). For 15-year-old Rachel the uprooting takes place just as her childhood friendship with Jake Weaver begins to blossom into something more. For 20-year-old Emma and her Levi it’s a reason to push up their wedding date. For 18-year-old Miriam it’s a cause for despair. Once in Mexico there are a host of new challenges including thieving neighbours, mountain bandits, complicated births, and a whole wagonload of cabbage with not a single Mexican buyer.

We experience the settings of both Ohio and Mexico in all their lush fullness via the skill of Cramer’s award-winning writing style. Here, for example, is the market scene in Saltillo Mexico:

“The open-air market was really nothing more than a great long wide street, made considerably narrower by the booths and tables and carts and barrows of peddlers lining both sides of it, hawking their wares. There were vegetables – tomatoes and squash and onions and all sorts of peppers – and fruits, from apples and oranges to melons and even bananas. There were live chickens and live goats, and hanging from hooks under a little awning, dead plucked chickens and dead skinned goats, fish and rabbits and beef and wheat. Almost anything could be found here.”  p. 213.

As is customary in his fiction, Cramer explores important themes through Paradise Valley’s plot and characters. At the beginning this Amish family faces the challenge of what to do when personal beliefs conflict with the laws of the land. Values of hard work, cooperation, fear of God, and personal integrity are tested in a variety of situations. Invariably the Bender patriarch proves himself the family anchor as a personification of conviction and integrity.

Paradise Valley is both great entertainment and an enlightening glimpse into Amish history. Cramer does as good a job of getting into the heads and hearts of his teenage female characters as any of the myriad female authors of bonnet fiction I’ve read lately. The presence of danger continually lurking just over the mountain ridge gives the book an edge of suspense. The mysterious Mexican character Domingo is a welcome contrast to the mild Amish people. I especially appreciated Cramer challenging Caleb Bender’s non-resistance with Domingo’s straightforward questions.

Domingo, after explaining what could have happened if the outlaw El Pantera had absconded with Caleb’s daughters asks: “Would you fight now … Herr Bender, would you not kill El Pantera to save your daughters from such a fate?”

Caleb’s response sheds light on the non-resistance tenet of Amish beliefs: “No, I would not. Though it cost me an unthinkable price, I could not defy Gott. … We do not live by power or might but by the Spirit of the Lord of hosts. It is better to suffer in this brief life than for all eternity. … I will accept whatever Gott allows” pp. 218-19.

In the list of Cramer’s books that are part of the front matter, Paradise Valley is the first, and so far only title under the heading “The Daughters of Caleb Bender.” Does that mean more Daughters of Caleb Bender books are in the works? Let’s hope so! 

(For book clubs, a “Paradise Valley Discussion Guide” is available.)

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