He shakes his head and smiles, swallows his small mouthful of food. For a country-raised Mennonite, he has impeccable manners, which only emphasizes my belief that you can look the part of the honored bishop but still be a barbarian inside.
Written in an engaging combination of voices, Jolina Petersheim’s stunning debut novel, The Outcast, tells the story of a young Mennonite woman battling a secret foe, one whose position in their community offers him the perfect opportunity to hurt her, and keep her from his younger brother, Judah, the man she is meant to be with.
The two brothers are “Bout as different as Cain and Abel,” to quote Ida Mae.
Judah and I had our own secret language, and sheathed in its safety, he would often confide how desperately he wanted to leave this world for the larger one beyond it. A world he had explored only through the books he would purchase at Root’s Market when his father wasn’t looking and read until the pages were sticky with the sweat of a thousand secret turnings.
The setting is a Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite community. Rachel, Leah’s twin, is unmarried, but she has delivered a son out of wedlock, a shunning offense in their small community. She refuses to reveal the identity of the father. There is more behind her refusal than simply wanting to protect the man. Leah, her twin, is married to a pillar in the community; a bishop, whose dark, disapproval and obvious dislike of Rachel contribute to her being thrown out to live in the world of the Englischer. There Rachel is befriended by Ida Mae:
Ida Mae hops down out of the cab. I look over while freeing Eli from his car seat and stifle a gasp. This is the first time I’ve seen her outside the truck, and I never noticed that she was short. Her legs, squashed into Wranglers so tight they must be cutting off her circulation, are the same as a chicken’s: plump at the top but narrowing down to ankles that are as bony as mine. She wears mud-caked boots that lace up, and as she stalks off toward her Amish store, I see there’s a perfect worn circle on the backside of her jeans from where she keeps her tobacco tin.
Ida Mae has a tragic secret, buried for years. Rachel uncovers hints of what it might be, but never comes close to imagining the truth until her own son is in danger. The full force of what Ida Mae has survived comes to light, revealing the ultimate clash of the Englischer and Plain worlds.
In early reviews The Outcast has been compared to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. There is a strong thematic resemblance, but it also shares a lot in common structurally with Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, in that it is narrated, in part, by a ghost. Amos is a thoroughly likable elder who has passed, but his concern for his family draws him back again and again to watch over them. His poignant perspective is saddened by what he can no longer influence or correct, and the reader feels his regret build as events unfold. He can see into the hearts of the other characters, but is unable to do anything to help, his time on earth being over. His narration adds a level of depth that would be missing without him.
The Outcast offers a glimpse into a world that exists separately, yet right alongside the common one of TVs, cars and computers. The plot has tension from start to finish, some nice twists, and a good surprise ending that will have the reader chewing her nails. Petersheim has a surprisingly mature voice and writing style for a young author. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and look forward to this author’s next.
Stop by for an interview with Jolina Petersheim tomorrow.