Down to the Bone
Rachel Mast is a young Amish widow struggling with a very fundamental problem. While she loves and reveres her tight-knit community, she’s frustrated by its unwillingness to allow a woman to be independent. One year after her husband, Sam, was crushed and impaled by the hay hook in their barn (all together now: eeeeuww), Rachel is being pressured to marry, so that she and her prosperous farm can be cared for by one of the community’s men. Rachel doesn’t want to marry again, and she wants to keep her farm for her small twin sons. But that’s not the Amish way.
That’s the central conflict of Down to the Bone, a romantic suspense novel by Karen Harper. How can Rachel live in a community that doesn’t allow her the freedom she needs to be happy? But how can she live without its love and support?
Of course, Rachel has plenty of other things on her mind as well. She’s convinced that someone murdered her husband, although the leaders of her Amish community forbade the authorities from investigating. Someone’s been stalking her, anonymously doing chores and leaving puzzling mementoes. Her four-year-old sons believe that the ghost of their daddy is haunting the barn. She and her non-Amish neighbor are raising pumpkins together, and the Amish are stridently opposed. And she’s being ardently pursued by handsome, worldly Mitch Randall, a man who recycles old barns into new dwellings. Is someone playing pranks on her to get her to leave her farm? Is her prankster the same one who murdered Sam? Is Mitch in love with her, or her barn?
This novel works best when it’s describing the Amish customs and traditions, the things the Amish have to do to get the farm work done, and the strange logic behind some of their ways. Although some of the Amish people in this book are self-righteous and bigoted, for the most part Harper succeeds in portraying the Amish community as a strict but very loving one. Rachel is a likeable character and her dilemma is poignant.
Down to the Bone succeeds less well as a novel of suspense, mostly because the pace is so slow. Readers are given lots of time to examine all the suspects, who all behave suspiciously in their different ways – over and over and over again. The mystery is a good one, the solution neat and far from obvious. But the lazy way that events unfold does not lead to gripping suspense. By the time of the dramatic conclusion, I was bored.
This novel’s greatest flaw is its romance. Since even casual relationships between the Amish and outsiders are strictly forbidden, there’s no question that if Rachel falls in love with Mitch she’s going to lose the community and the way of life she loves. It would take a pretty great hero to make that sort of sacrifice worth it, and the demanding Mitch Randall is not that hero. He is determined to win Rachel, no matter what price she has to pay. In spite of her terror that she’ll be cast out by her people, he deliberately tempts and encourages her to rebel against the Amish – to go for drives with him, to get contact lenses. When she resists, he badgers her. His actions told me that he selfishly wants her to be driven out of her community so that he can have her – and in my eyes, that makes him a jerk, not a hero.
The solution to Rachel’s personal dilemma seemed far too pat. I would have liked this book better if it had concentrated on Rachel and the clash of cultural worlds, and made sense of her extremely difficult position by not giving her such an easy way out.
Much of this book is quite enjoyable, and I recommend it to those who are interested in the Amish. But if you’re in the mood for feverish suspense, this is not the book you’re looking for.