Gladden the Heart
Gladden the Heart is the fifth novel in Olivia Newport’s Amish Turns of Time series. This loosely connected set of books examines key moments in the history of the American Amish church from the 1895 split over the teaching of Sunday school (Meek and Mild) to the issues surrounding the great depression (Hope in the Land). Ms. Newport typically does a good job of bringing the history alive in her books while keeping the relationship between the hero and heroine at the heart of her story, but unfortunately she is not quite able to pull that off in this particular novel.
Susanna Hooley has always been excited to go to church but never more than now. Since Adam Yotter joined their congregation, he has been courting Susanna and the two have been moving slowly towards an understanding. Sunday Meetings provide a great opportunity to further their courtship.
After the service and congregational meal, Adam plans to ask Susanna to join him and other young people on a walk around the surrounding countryside, but before he gets the chance, tragedy strikes. In the midst of dinner, Noah Kauffman, Susanna’s cousin, seems to be affected by heat stroke. He preaches a loud, vigorous (unauthorized) sermon but when he is done, he faints and has no memory of what happened. Susanna and Adam help Noah’s wife get him settled at home and return to their own domiciles without having much opportunity to interact. What little communication they do have shows Susanna is deeply worried about her cousin’s health.
The next day when she visits Noah’s farm she learns a startling truth from his wife. It was not just a reaction to the heat that had Noah sleep preaching; it is something that has been happening for years. Originally, it was just an annual thing but it has moved slowly from monthly to weekly to almost daily. An Englisch doctor was consulted but was unable to offer any help. When experiencing one of his spells, Noah is unaware of his surroundings and is susceptible to falling, walking into things, and even burning himself. His wife is exhausted from watching over him to keep him safe. Noah is exhausted by the experiences and is slowly falling behind on his farm work and at the same time the couple is also trying to care for an ailing relative. Overwhelmed by everything that is happening to them and around them, they gladly accept Susanna’s offer of help.
Pretty soon, taking care of Noah is consuming Susanna’s life. She does her own chores at home in the morning and spends afternoons and evenings at the Kauffmann farm, so there is no time for courting. As word spreads of Noah’s daily afternoon preaching sessions, people come to see him and a division begins to form in the church. The bishop is of the belief that Noah is doing this for attention and can stop. Others feel Noah is caught up by the spirit of God and is being used to spur revival in their hearts. Adam, who is learning carpentry from the bishop, finds himself in an awkward position; he is torn between supporting Susanna and denouncing Noah.
Adding confusion to the mix is the local Methodist minister, a good friend of Adam’s uncle and Susanna’s family. He believes that Noah is being guided by God and urges the family to let him take Noah with him on a revival tour. Susanna and her good friend Patsy Braxton, the minister’s daughter, go along with Noah as he does a short circuit of preaching. This drives an even bigger wedge between Susanna and Adam as they find themselves questioning where each of them stands in terms of faith, family and community.
Most times when history is presented in a story it functions as part of the setting. In this case, the history is the plot. Revivals were a big part of 19th century American history and the story of Noah is in many ways a story of the revivals. The Amish community lost the most people to revivalist preachers and their flamboyant style of teaching, and sleep preaching, which was something of a trend at that time, was experienced within their own community. So these two simultaneous events – the revivals and the sleep preachers – were occurrences being handled by many Amish congregations. Gladden the Heart explores the effect such a confluence had on families and communities and what happened when courting couples like Adam and Susanna found themselves on opposite sides of the issue.
The problem is that I found the whole thing unenjoyable. I disliked the number of times the narrative was interrupted to bring us snippets of sermons, and, not being a fan of revivals, I found myself uncomfortable with the way they were presented in the text. I was distracted by Noah’s illness and could not bring myself to believe it a work/act of God. Susanna’s loyalty to her cousin over her own family and prospective husband did not convey that she was a woman mature enough for marriage. I appreciated her desire to help those in need but couldn’t help thinking that she was also drawn to the drama and excitement of the experience. She seemed less anxious to help the family find a solution than in helping them maintain the status quo, which constitutes a weak sort of help to my mind. I didn’t appreciate spending the majority of the book in a sea of strained relationships as everyone pulled in different directions and ultimately felt the HEA was more weary resignation than truly finding a happy ever after.
That said, I will acknowledge that the history here is extremely well done. Ms. Newport brings great understanding to the Amish perspective on revivals, sleep preaching and the effect both had on their communities. The prose is smooth, the characters well drawn, the setting detailed – the writing is well-nigh flawless. The problem lies strictly with the lack of appeal within the story itself. As someone who reads spiritual books, the bible and attends church with great frequency, my tolerance level for all things religious is very high. I want to make it clear that I know this is an Inspirational story and I have no trouble with the faith aspect of the book. The difficulty lay with the fact that the story lacks romance, which a love story should have, and it lacks joy. I don’t pick up fiction to be educated but entertained and this book failed to do that.
Gladden the Heart saddened my heart (sorry, couldn’t help myself.) While I am a huge fan of Ms. Newport’s work, I can recommend this tale only to her die-hard fans. I recommend that others give it a wide berth.