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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Ira Wagler enters the black-clad world of the Old Order Amish on a routine, August day, as the ninth of 11 children in Aylmer, Ontario. No cars, no electricity and no telephones in the house largely define those in this Old Order, and rubber rims on buggy wheels feels progressive. Ira describes his average life as an Amish boy, living on a small farm with horses, cattle, hogs, chickens and dogs. His family cooks on a woodburning stove. He offers a child's perspective of an Amish church service during the 1960s: It lasts too long, and he just wishes it were over.

Ira eagerly starts school as a 6-year-old. In second grade, he manages to skip weeks of penmanship assignments, but is eventually found out by his teacher, Miss Eicher. Fearing a severe punishment from both her and his father, Ira is surprised when Miss Eicher only has him complete missing assignments, and then the matter is dropped, leaving a lasting impression. Ira recalls his transition from third to fourth grade: Older students pick on him, and Nicholas, an even younger student who is particularly weak and defenseless, is constantly bullied. It is a painful account of physical and emotional cruelty to a boy who came from a poor and "different" family.

Ira's father, David, is not skilled at farming. He excels at selling fresh produce and hogs. However his true gift is writing, and he cofounds Pathway Publishers, launching Family Life, a magazine for the Amish, by the Amish — even mortgaging the farm to accomplish his dream. David becomes widely known among Amish and Mennonite communities in the U.S. and overseas. Ida Mae, Ira's mother, is a stereotypical Amish housewife in charge of children, cooking and cleaning.

Life in the Aylmer community begins to change when two preachers and their families leave, along with some of Ira's friends and other families. New preachers are ordained as replacements, and they slowly enact new and stricter rules — no more plastic eyeglass frames, only wire; longer dresses; larger head coverings.

On the heels of these departures, Ira's oldest sister leaves Aylmer and joins a Mennonite congregation in Pennsylvania. Later his 18-year-old brother, Jesse, leaves in the night for Cleveland. He returns after months of pressure, but leaves again before a year passes. Ira tells about his parents' grief and embarrassment over the loss of their children.

When the next brother, Stephen, leaves, David decides it would be best for the rest of his family to move to a new place where things might be better, and his remaining children would be more likely to stay Amish. So David leaves his passion — editor of Family Life magazine — and buys a farm in Iowa.

Life is generally good in Bloomfield, with hard work and Sunday night singings, Ira's favorite aspect of Amish church life. Ira gains new insight into the ordinariness of preachers when his oldest brother, Joseph, is chosen by lot to become one — for life. Four of the men under consideration for preacher status are relieved when they are not chosen.

Ira turns 16 and enters what is known as the Rumspringa years, or "running around" years. Young people are considered adults, and they theoretically are given time to decide whether they want to remain Amish. Ira and five of his friends hang out together and continually push the limits of what is acceptable Amish behavior — sipping beer, listening to transistor radios and eight-track tape players, racing horse-drawn buggies, telling rowdy jokes.

Feeling stifled and with little to attract him to Amish life, 17-year-old Ira is drawn by the possibilities of the outside world and follows the precedent set by his siblings. He plans his departure from Amish life.

Ira runs away during the night, getting help from a young mule skinner named Dewayne to reach the bus depot. He heads for Valentine, Neb. En route, he purchases his first pair of zippered blue jeans and watches television in a motel. Having connected earlier with a ranch manager near Valentine, Ira is hired as a ranch hand. He learns the ropes from an experienced cowboy and learns how to drive a pickup. A younger cowboy named Allen introduces Ira to partying in town. Before long the five boys Ira hung out with in Bloomfield also leave and come to work on ranches near Valentine. Though Ira believes that he is spiritually lost and has no hope for salvation, the seduction of the English world is stronger, and he disregards the letters his parents send him concerning his spiritual state.

Ranch life loses its appeal after five months, and Ira misses home and returns. But life is changed for him, and he continues to make choices that divide him from his family and community. Ira and his cousin Phil bounce in and out of their communities. Together they buy a car, steal cattle to sell for quick money and steal gasoline from a farmer while church is in session. Ira's brother Titus has a diving accident, resulting in quadriplegia. The family assumes responsibility for his medical bills, yet they are unable to pay. The new editor of Family Life appeals to its readership, and they generously respond with donations totaling $84,000. Ira notes this as a reflection of Amish culture rather than the provision of the Lord.

Ira is finally baptized into the church at 21. Since Titus can no longer take care of the farm, Ira takes over, offering to work an extra year with no wages to repay his father for his absences. His youngest brother, 16-year-old Nathan, decides to leave and heads for the Nebraska ranches where Ira once fled.

Ira sets his sights on a girl named Sarah, who he courts for a couple of years before he begins to feel stifled by the prospect of becoming further embedded in Amish culture. Nevertheless, he proposes to Sarah, and breaks her heart when he has to end the relationship. Ira leaves and eventually signs on with a company from Alberta, working the harvest in Montana and Canada. With his wages he buys a pickup and fittingly names it "the Drifter."

After 10 years of torment and indecision, the love and freedom of Christ find Ira as he prays for a new life. In the end, Ira accepts the fact that he cannot commit to continuing life as an Amish man, yet also realizes that leaving the Amish will not result in the loss of his salvation.

Christian Beliefs

David, Ira's dad, reads Scripture after breakfast, followed by prayer from a little black book. Somber church services are held in homes and last about three hours. Ira and some of his grade school friends discuss whether they should love Satan because they are supposed to love everyone. They finally agree to love Satan just a little so that they would be neither guilty of loving evil nor of not loving at all.

Ira's uncle sells everything he has and relocates to Honduras to help the impoverished by teaching them Amish farming methods and thus gain converts, an anomaly among Amish who typically do not proselytize.

The process of choosing who will be a preacher is by lot and is based on the New Testament account of the apostles choosing Mathias to replace Judas.

Though Joseph, Ira's oldest brother, disapproves of Ira's life choices, he always makes himself available to Ira. The Amish church genuinely forgives and welcomes errant young men who return to the fold.

When his mother senses Ira's depression, she comes to him and tells him that Jesus can help.

Ira meets his distant cousins, also Waglers, when he arrives in Daviess. These Waglers are Mennonites and Christians, and Ira notes their joy even though they had just had a death in the family. They talk openly about their faith.

Ira's friend Sam Johnson demonstrates Christ's love. He tells Ira there is nothing he has done that cannot be forgiven. Ira prays for a new life in Christ and feels peace and joy. In the end, Ira strives to mirror the kind of love and understanding Sam has given him — reflecting Christ's love without judgment.

Other Belief Systems

Ira's dad, David, is a gifted dowser, also known as a "water witch." David rejects the label, but he has a proven record of 100 percent accuracy. Amish theology includes the belief that life apart from the Amish way of life is a path to hell. Salvation appears to be works-based, rather than faith-based.

Authority Roles

Ida Mae, Ira's mother, tries to protect her children from the dangers of the cornstalk chopper by telling them terrifying stories of what might happen if they get too near the chopper. She is faithfully attentive to Titus during his hospitalization and rehabilitation. When Ida senses Ira's depression, she tells him that Jesus can help.

David, Ira's dad, neglects his wife and children in the pursuit of his passion for writing. His relationship with his teen sons suffers because of his strict admonitions — giving long, angry lectures, then immersing himself in his work at Pathway Publishers while they silently rebel. Though he loves Aylmer and his dream job, David attempts to preserve his family by selling the farm and moving from Ontario to Iowa.

Profanity/Violence

Ira's mother appalls her children with the story of a 4-year-old boy who fell into the cornstalk chopper, and his remains were seen as chopped up bits mixed in with silage the following winter.

Teased and tortured as an Aylmer schoolboy, Nicholas, at the age of 31, drowns himself and is found hours later with his nose and part of his face eaten by turtles.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Ira describes the town girls of Valentine as bold, aggressive and available. He kisses one for the first time at 17; she had "been around."

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol and tobacco: Ira drinks beer and whiskey, smokes filterless Camels and mentions once having been stoned.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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