Holly Payne,
Kingdom of Simplicity
(Skywriter, 2009)

The accident scene itself is, of course, horrible.

But the moment the tragedy really hit home for me was several months later in the narrative. Christmas was fast approaching, and Eli's mother had made far too many cookies -- she was used to baking for eight, after all, not the three who had survived.

Holly Payne's novel Kingdom of Simplicity is set in the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pa. The story isn't about the Nickel Mines shooting, when a gunman murdered several young girls in an Amish school before killing himself, although the aura of forgiveness that permeated the community in the aftermath makes itself felt. And it's not about the accident that left Payne herself paralyzed for nearly a year, although that, too, is a weighty presence in the book. Payne explains that the drunk driver who hit her wrote to her, asking for forgiveness. In response to his plea, and inspired by the Nickel Mines incident, Payne wrote this book.

The focus here is Eli Yoder, a troubled boy in the Amish community who is surrounded by sisters until an accident steals them away. His efforts to forgive the person at fault -- as well as himself, for an earlier transgression that, in many ways, defines his life -- are at the heart of this story.

But Payne isn't simply writing about a young man's struggle to accept his faith. She's telling a story of a culture that is at odds with modern society, an anachronism, a novelty for curiosity-seeking tourists. Her writing is fluid and eloquent, painting gentle pictures of Eli's life and surroundings.

There are a few hitches in the story -- the subplot involving a police investigation doesn't ring true, for instance, and the media circus surrounding an incident at Lancaster County Prison is vastly overblown -- but these are minor matters in the greater scope of Eli's story. More important are Eli's relationships with Leroy, a barber with close ties to the Amish community; Emma, the Amish girl who is always just outside the center of Eli's life; and Levi, who, like Eli, finds himself an outsider among his own people. A scene involving Eli, Emma and the secret Amish custom called "bundling" is subtly and surprisingly erotic, in its way.

Payne treats her characters with a deft and tender hand. Kingdom of Simplicity captures the traditions and beliefs of Amish society while keeping a loving eye on Eli's own journey of forgiveness, acceptance, faith and love.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Tom Knapp

7 May 2011

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