RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: Promise to Return by Elizabeth Byler Younts


Title: Promise to Return
Author: Elizabeth Byler Younts
Publication Info: Howard Books October 2013
ISBN: 978-1476735016
Genre: Inspirational

Book Promise to Return This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Aorist. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Best First Book and Inspirational Romance categories.

The summary:

When World War II breaks out, Miriam’s fiancé, Henry, is drafted and sent to a conscientious objector camp. But when Henry feels called to fight on the front lines, he goes against the Amish church to follow God’s will—forcing Miriam to choose between the rules of her religion and the leading of her heart.

It’s 1943 and Miriam Coblentz and Henry Mast are nearing their wedding day when the unthinkable happens—Henry is drafted. However, since he is a part of the pacifist Amish tradition, Henry is sent to a conscientious objector Civilian Public Service camp. When he leaves for the work camp, his gaping absence turns Miriam’s life upside down. Little does she know that it’s only the beginning…

When Henry returns home, he brings news that shakes Miriam and their Amish community to the core. He tells Miriam he believes God has called him to enlist in the Army and fight for his country, leaving her to make an important decision. She soon must choose between loyalty to the peaceful life she’s always known and her love for Henry and her faith in their shared destiny.

Two worlds collide in this unforgettable debut novel, providing a fascinating and rare look into Amish culture during World War II. While Henry is battling enemies across the ocean, Miriam struggles between devotion to Henry and her love of the Amish way of life. One question is at the bottom of it all: will she follow her religion or her heart?

And here's Aorist's review:

This was nominated as a first novel.  It is also an inspirational.  It is set in 1943 and beyond during World War II.  Based on the price at Amazon and the classroom discussion questions, this hardcover book is not being marketed as traditional romance.  Bottom line up front:  I gave this a B+.

Before writing this, I asked myself quite a number of questions, focusing on two of the most important.  Do I cut this writer some slack because it is her first novel?  Do I review this as an inspirational novel within the context that this category has its own rules and its readers have a set of expectations that differ from mainstream romance?  So much as I do at work, I’m going to list my assumptions that guided my grade.

– I grant her some slack but also note shortcomings in the writing.

– Inspirational books are about faith, the journey growing in belief, and making decisions about conduct guided by conscience.

Miriam is from an Amish family in Delaware who has had a long courtship with Henry that was about to culminate in marriage when he is drafted.  Because of his pacifist convictions, he goes to a Civilian Public Service camp in Maryland where he is exposed to other conscientious objectors and radio news broadcast without marrying Miriam.  Her other beau, Eli, pursues her, hoping that she will reciprocate his love.  In a departure from the usual romance formula, Miriam does explore the possibility of having a relationship with Eli, spending a lot of time with him. 

Then, Henry comes back from camp and blows up Miriam’s world by saying he is enlisting because he has come to believe the situation in Europe has forced himself to look at his conviction that war is murder.  Miriam is stunned.  Henry’s actions bring up all the emotions of her sister Kathryn leaving the community to marry an outsider and the subsequent shunning.  Should she marry Henry before he ships out, risking her connection to family and religious community?  Should she wait for him and see if he comes back and repents?  Younts evokes a lot of emotion during the decision to marry, the decision to stay and wait, and the decision to waffle, maintaining a forbidden contact with Henry but still act as a dutiful daughter and a committed Christian in her tradition.  Miriam swings back and forth, moving toward Henry, moving away from Henry, clinging to her faith, and pondering Henry’s new idea that God speaks to people.

“The way I see it is that God usually has us on this narrow path where we can only see the step right in front of us.  Then sometimes,” he paused and looked away again, “sometimes I feel like He opens a huge door or a field or, I don’t know, opens something that shows me how big His plans are, and suddenly I have all this room to move around.  Sometimes it’s way off the path I expect.  Do you know what I mean?”

Miriam wasn’t sure.  She nodded anyway.  “All I really know is that whether it’s a path or a field, I just want to be with you.  No matter what.”

When he kissed her goodbye there was a desperation in his touch.  She didn’t know why, but she was sure he had something hidden behind his dark eyes.

But then she spends time with her father and mother.  And her doubts come to the fore.

God’s will is best.  The words rang in her ears and she let them soak into her throat, hoping it would push the lump of tears down into her chest.  But she didn’t let the phrase penetrate her heart.  She couldn’t.  She wasn’t sure she believed it anymore.  Her heart was weary of those words.

Most of this book is about Miriam’s struggle with her faith and its rules of inclusion and exclusion.  She wants it both ways, belonging to the Amish world and having Henry.  Miriam and Henry are apart during most of the story, with only rare meetings that advance the Miriam’s crisis of faith.

SPOILER (Highlight text to read): During the times she wants to belong, she spends a lot of time with Eli, who pushes her toward marriage with him and shunning Henry even before the community expels him.  Eli’s kisses are not like Henry’s.  So she resolves to wait for Henry.  But then she thinks about how safe marriage to Eli would be and how lonely she would be to leave her family like her sister, Kathryn.

Henry comes back with some friends from basic training who call him Hank, not Henry.  One is religious but the other is not. In fact, he’s quite uncouth.  Nonetheless, Miriam decides she will marry Henry before he ships out, only to back out at the last moment.

If this was not an inspirational, I would want to shake her and say make up your mind and accept the consequences of your choice.  But it is an inspirational.  The core of any story in this category is about a faith community, its rules, a person’s struggle with faith, a growth in grace and belief, and a life-changing decision.  And Younts delivers this in spades.  Much of the story is about Miriam rather than Henry, so I became very involved in wanting to know how she was going to reconcile her faith and her love of Henry.  Miriam is a fully developed character, while Henry is not as much.  Younts does a lot of telling about Miriam’s love, rather than showing.  She also does a lot of telling about Henry going there, coming here.  At times I really yearned for more conversation and less analysis of faith.

Like Henry, Miriam encounters the world outside the Amish community.  She learns that the shunning of Kathryn was not as absolute as she thought.  Contact with Kathryn further challenges her faith, bringing up Henry’s idea that God speaks to individuals and people can talk to God with their problems rather than seeking to apply rules and conventions.

World War II in a lot of ways, including rationing, is another character in this book which anchors it well in time, place, and pace.  Letters are slow.  People take time for community.

SPOILER (Highlight text to read): The community begins to shun Miriam when she pulls back from Eli and embraces contact with Henry, so there’s a lot more exploration of alienation from the familiar and a journey into the unknown. A lot more.  The crux of the story culminates in Miriam deciding to leave and marry a wounded Henry. 

Given the previous pace, part of me felt like that end of the story was rushed given the slow pace, but part of me was delighted that I don’t have to watch more to’ing and fro’ing.  I did wonder if Henry and Miriam were able to reconcile all the players of the story over time, but decided to accept Younts’ premise that they were on the right path.

If you aren’t interested in a story about faith, this is not a book for you. If you want action, movement, and urgency, the pace of this story will frustrate you.  If you want lots of romantic interaction, this book will seem tame and dated.  I suspect another reader's grade would be at least a C, possibly a D.  But I found Miriam’s struggles interesting if not compelling, and the story pulled me along.  Given premise of the genre and realities of the historic era, and Younts’ voice with its measured pace to reflect crisis of faith and a rather static community, I think this deserves a B+.

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