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Book Review: Somewhere to Belong by Judith Miller

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Seventeen-year-old Berta Schumacher thinks she and her parents have come to Main Village of the Amana Colonies in Iowa for a brief visit. Even that can’t end too soon as far as she’s concerned. When she discovers that the family has actually come to stay, she puts on a spoiled-child act that shocks 20-year-old Johanna Ilg.

Johanna is all the more dismayed when she discovers that it is to be her job to train Berta for work in the colony’s communal kitchen. Somewhere to Belong by Judith Miller is the story of what happens in the lives of Berta and Johanna between March and the autumn of 1877.

Johanna and Berta are entertaining, vividly drawn characters who take turns telling their side of the story. The point-of-view character changes with almost every chapter, and since both talk in first person and sound a lot like each other, the reader needs to pay close attention to who is speaking (designated by character names that head the numbered chapters).

Related to first person POV telling, once in a while Miller expresses the girls’ thoughts using vocabulary that doesn’t seem realistic. I hardly think a 17-year-old would notice the air as cooling a “modicum,” call an afternoon snack a “repast” or refer to someone not giving her a straight answer as a “demurring” and a “declination” (pp. 96 and 121). Simpler words would feel more in tune with the setting, and the girls' ages and personalities.

Both young women are by turns likable (Berta for her spunk and imagination, Johanna for her kindness, maturity and patience) and frustrating (Berta is selfish, bratty, and immature; Johanna stubborn and forced to play the role of the goody-two-shoes enforcer). Berta gets into all kinds of trouble and the way she learns from her mistakes (or doesn’t) gives the book the feel of a coming-of-age novel. There is also romance — delivered ever so discreetly; I’m sure the Amanan’s would approve.

The 1870s Amana Colony setting distinguishes this book from Amish novels, though in many ways it has the same feel. Some German renderings of words, and detailed descriptions of the colony and its workings makes for an authentic reader experience. One thing Miller does well is show how the group dynamic of the colony puts pressure to conform onto the characters. As a result, Berta’s repeated flaunting of the rules becomes the source of lots of character and reader tension.

Secrets and their potential to harm relationships is a theme that runs through the book. The characters’ faith, displayed through outward devotion and religious practice (they are always going to some prayer meeting or service at the colony’s meeting house), plays a big part in the story too. Though in some ways the faith depicted seems more like an imposition of colony culture (with almost a cultish feel to it) than a faith decision entered into and nurtured as a result of personal choice, I suspect the way it is portrayed is more realistic to the way it was than not.

Miller’s skill at keeping her characters in hot water makes this a compelling, fast read. For an entertaining and educational sojourn in another place and time, Somewhere to Belong won’t disappoint. It is the first in the Daughters of Amana Series. Book Two, More than Words, is due to be released later this year.

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