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Book Review: The Choice by Suzanne Woods Fisher

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Carrie had no idea, on the morning that was supposed to be one of her last at home before running off with Sol, that a terrible tragedy would soon change everything. But events set in motion that day led to a choice that altered the course of her life.

In The Choice, Suzanne Woods Fisher introduces us to an Amish community in Lancaster County, where we meet Carrie, Emma, Sol, Daniel, Mattie and others. We follow main character Carrie for just over a year as her life takes many unexpected turns, leaving her a wiser, stronger person than she was on those July days when she sneaked away to watch baseball games in town and got up in the middle of the night to rendezvous with her sweetheart via a nearby payphone.

Characters are the book’s strength. Carrie is attractive, likeable, impressionable yet strong-willed, intriguing and a little mysterious. Other characters, though not explored to the same depth, are also complex, interesting and varied. Fisher’s range is seen in how she depicts both Amish and ‘English’ characters with skill, capturing their personalities in actions, mannerisms and conversations.

As much as I enjoyed the characters, I found my credulity stretched by the plot. Three deaths by page 86! That’s hardly what one expects from an Amish pastoral. I had moments when the events felt so random, I wondered if all this was really going anywhere. The plot does manage to come together in the end, though, with even a little mystery to solve.

Fisher’s knowledge of the Amish – including their Pennsylvania Dutch dialect which she often includes in the conversation (always with translation of course) – makes for nice vicarious Amish experiences, like barn raisings and community feasts. It also gives rise to the humor, which comes about when Amish and non-Amish characters meet. Here, for example, Steelhead, a rough-around-the-edges friend of Abel’s from prison, makes mealtime conversation on the day prim and proper Amish matriarch Esther comes for supper:

“'Hooboy!' Steelhead continued, his head turning shiny. 'I never want to eat another morsel of prison grub. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Know what I’m saying?'

Esther’s eyes went wide with shock and her lips puckered as if she’d just eaten a pickle. Emma covered her face with her hands. Carrie tried to kick Steelhead under the table but missed. Abel cleared his throat, trying to get Steelhead to stop talking, but Steelhead was cornered. His mind was whirring along, and his mouth dragged along behind it, spilling out any thought that passed through his head.” p. 235-6

(Want more? Read the book's first pages here.)

The Choice is about a lot more than just Carrie’s choices. Some characters are faced with choosing whether to be open or to keep secrets. Others are confronted with the choice of whether or not to forgive. The choice of whether to continue to ‘live Amish’ is also an issue. That’s not surprising as many of the characters are in their “Rumspringa” – running-around days, when they can sow their wild oats without the threat of being shunned by the community. In this regard the presence of non-Amish characters is a nice little vehicle for illustrating the temptation to leave by contrasting contemporary plain life with the much freer, though cluttered and technology-driven life of the non-Amish.

Another theme of the story is faith. Both Abel and Mattie are outspoken about their Christian faith – though they live it and speak about it in different ways. In that respect, this Amish story felt different from others I’ve read, where breaking rules like some of these characters did led to much harsher consequences. This story dwells more on the positive aspects of Amish life – like the community helping their own, and their unwillingness to judge people or press legal charges against them. The discrepancies made me wonder whether Amish standards may be not be quite as rigid as I had thought.

If a story about the plain life peopled by a variety of interesting characters is your fancy, The Choice is a good choice for you. More Amish books by the same author will soon be available as The Choice is only the first book in a series called Lancaster County Secrets.

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