I’ve not read anything by Shelley Shepard Gray before, but Her Secret, the first novel in her new series, illustrates why she’s a popular Christian writer. Her style is smooth and readable, her characters are easy to know, and her stories center on realistic daily life. This is an engaging Amish woman-in-jeopardy story where the suspense element is prominent, and the romance, Amish environment, and spiritual messages are woven around a hovering threat.
The Hilty family has a near perfect life in the Amish community of Berlin, Ohio, and Hannah, the eldest daughter, works at a tourist diner. She admits that she had made some foolish mistakes during her rumspringa — encouraging the Englisher Trent being the worst one — but that is over now, and she has pledged herself to her community.
Then Hannah receives cards and flowers, all from Trent, and finally a packet of photographs, one of which shows her silhouetted behind her bedroom curtain as she undresses. On her parents’ advice, Hannah does not involve the police, but when the photographs arrive, they reluctantly agree she should file a report. Since Trent has done nothing illegal so far, the police can do little but listen and make notes. Hannah’s parents decide it’s best to avoid the determined stalker and move the family to the rural Amish community at Munfordville, Kentucky, to begin a new life in safety.
No one is happy about the move. Hannah’s younger siblings struggle to make new friends in the smaller community and blame Hannah for the situation, her mother and father seem distracted, and Hannah is plagued by fears that haunt her dreams and bind her to the house. Three months pass before Hannah ventures out for a solitary walk along a nearby river only to meet a local Amish resident, Isaac Troyer, a man near her own age. Isaac has come to the river to fish and is surprised to see Hannah – ‘the Recluse’ as some have dubbed her – out and about. Hannah interprets his attempts to engage her in conversation as rudeness, and she walks home alone, determined never to talk to him again. For his part, Isaac realizes that he had pushed too hard during the conversation and visits Hannah a few days later to apologize and to invite her to a fund-raising meeting. Still feeling the sting of their first encounter but longing to make connections in her new home, Hannah accepts his invitation.
Over time, life in Kentucky becomes as complicated as was life in Ohio. Hannah’s parents reveal a devastating secret that affects the entire family; affection and love blossom between Isaac and Hannah, and signs appear that Trent has followed Hannah to Kentucky. When it becomes clear the stalker has returned, her siblings urge Hannah to go to the police, something they had hesitated to do in Ohio. As neighbors and friends learn of the threat, the community, both Amish and English, gathers around Hannah to protect her and apprehend Trent. It is in the Kentucky community that all the Hiltys learn the importance of reaching out to others when trouble touches them and to accept support when offered.
The story presents several additional life lessons. One is that hidden secrets fester into something hurtful and that the faster the truth comes to the surface, the better chance people have to work together and support each other under trying circumstances. Another theme running through the novel is that one should not judge a person’s actions or attitude until walking in his shoes — or at least knowing something of the circumstances that brought him to this point in life. Throughout the story, we are shown that a personal crisis never affects just one person and that everyone around that person is also unsettled by the upheaval.
I disliked the choice Hannah’s parents made to keep information from their children that would fundamentally affect them. It is only after the move to Kentucky and after a serious emotional chasm has opened up between Hannah and her siblings that their parents decide to reveal that secret. The initial decision is a product of the parents’ selfishness and they maintain their silence even while they recognize the damage that silence is inflicting on their children. While the situation offers a learning opportunity for Mr. and Mrs. Hilty and other readers may find this storyline inspiring, I found myself not liking Hannah’s parents.
Because of the focus on the stalker and how his actions affect everyone, this story could be set anywhere, in any community. The Amish lifestyle is not the novel’s focus, and the particulars become part of the background, the scenery so to speak, in which the threat exists.
If you’re looking for a book with a predominating romance, then this book might not be for you. However, I enjoyed Isaac and Hannah’s love story as they learn more about each other in a gentle, steady way. Isaac’s unswerving support of Hannah illustrates what life can be like when you have someone in your corner who always shows up. Hannah is rescued in the end, not by the heroic effort of one man, but by the combined efforts of herself, her family, and the community.
The novel deftly develops the various themes and shows how families can cope with threatening situations given openness, love, and the help of friends and family. If you like Amish fiction mixed with a little tension, a lot of love and a straightforward Christian message, I’m happy to recommend Her Secret.