Brightest and Best
I’m a big proponent of education options. My son attended a charter school from second grade through graduation and I was thrilled he had that opportunity. This novel talks about the Amish and their view towards education, which tends to be very different than the views held in the Englisch world.
Ella Hilty loves to read. Her father is indulgent of her passion and lets her go to the local library weekly to check out new books. She wonders however if she will have time to do as much reading once she marries Gideon Wittner and takes on the raising of his two young daughters. The girls are excited for the wedding, Ella is excited for the wedding and her step-mother is already planning the event. The day Ella goes to the school cleaning she knows she will not just be doing a service for her community but this year, she will be doing one for her family.
Proving that Murphy’s Law is alive and well even among the Amish, the roof of the building caves in while they are all there inspecting it. No one is hurt but it is clear the building needs to be replaced. The Amish and local farm families contact the school board but before the subject can even be addressed another problem crops up: the teacher of their little one-room school is getting married and will no longer be teaching. Deciding that this will be a good time to incorporate the outlying students into the city schools, the school board determines not to rebuild. The farm families go along with this with relatively good grace but the Amish families are deeply disturbed by it. Some of the fathers refuse to send any of their children to school, others refuse to send their older children to school and some determine to comply and see what happens.
Gideon and Ella’s father are among those who only partially comply. Gideon keeps his young teenaged son at home to help on the farm as does Ella’s father. The younger children go to school. This presents an almost immediate challenge. Gideon’s youngest takes to the Englisch school, especially art. She had been sketching in the dirt at home but the school enables her to take this talent to a whole new level and provides her with new mediums. The Amish have a problem with graven images made for no practical purpose and Gideon fears losing his daughter to the splendors of the Englisch world if she remains exposed to it.
Ella’s family also has a problem in that Ella’s oldest stepbrother refuses to remain at the farm and chooses to attend school. By demanding that he stay Ella’s father is both breaking the law and putting the boy into the position of having to disobey him in order to get an education. Tensions quickly mount in that household, especially since his mother fears he will be lost to the faith.
Soon the Englisch begin fining the farmers who are keeping teens and other children out of school. One of them begins building a new school on his own property. The other members of the congregation quickly join in and it looks like they might have a solution to the problem. But the law is not yet done with these families and a tragic event is soon to rock the community’s very foundation.
This book is a historical rather than a romance and the story very much revolves around the Amish beliefs surrounding education and the government’s stance on the same issues. The writing here is absolutely excellent and the author quickly pulls you into the story of the Amish and their struggle. She also pulls you into the story of Ella, the young Amish woman hoping to marry Gideon, and Margaret Simpson, an elementary school teacher who is sympathetic to the Amish and their struggle vis-à-vis the school. Both ladies – and their romances – have central roles in the story.
For Margaret, who is approaching her old maid years according to the time, she has been surprised and delighted by the gentle courtship of Gray Truesdale. They have reached the point in the relationship where he is starting to talk about the future but the two find themselves weirdly at odds over the Amish issue. As Gray tries to presume authority over Margaret in the matter, their relationship becomes very strained indeed. Margaret soon has to ask herself what she values more, her principles or her romance.
Ella is surprised to find herself in the same sad situation. Gideon turns to her more and more for help in educating his children. It’s not long before she is spending days at the kitchen table homeschooling the girls. As this becomes an issue with the courts and as the school house goes up, he seems to be stepping away from the marriage and into a desire for her to become a full time teacher. Ella has to really struggle internally with whether or not that is what she wants for her life.
I was impressed with how the broader fight for independence in education was turned into a more personal battle regarding women’s freedom and equality in this story. The Amish mothers are forced to comply with their husbands’ choices for their children and we see the cost of that, especially for Ella’s stepmom. Margaret has to choose between love, job security and doing what she feels is right. As the conflict continues Margaret realizes that it is not just the Amish issue that stands between her and Gray but her right to be her own person. She is a strong woman and knows she could never be steam rolled into submission but does she want to live her life in a bare knuckle fight, always having to argue for the right to agree to disagree? More comprehensively, she is one of the few women standing up to the male dominated school board. She has to struggle not to be dismissed, marginalized and ignored by the men who make up the majority of that body. It is an especially heroic battle since they make it clear they can terminate her contract at any time.
Ella is someone who has been under male authority her whole life. First her father was in charge and just as she seems to be getting some freedom from that we see her succumbing to the authority of Gideon. This isn’t typical in the few Amish romances I’ve read; normally the women have been shown as having more autonomy than they do here. While I liked Ella I really struggled with her willingness to allow Gideon to direct the course of her life. I wasn’t happy with the big decision she let him make at the end of the book and the fact that she was still willing to marry him after it. I felt his choice showed that Ella would always be someone he would use to solve his problems, not someone he loved and cherished. It just broke my heart a tiny bit.
I think if you like history and have any curiosity about the Amish and their way of life, you’ll find this a really interesting read. While the romances don’t have HEA endings I was delighted with how they showcased what can go wrong in a relationship and how important it is to standup for yourself even if it means sacrifice. If you’re looking for a good read, heavy in history, that is romantic though not a romance, I think this might fit the bill.