I've read and enjoyed a fair few Amish novels when I was in my late teens/early twenties, mostly by Beverly Lewis. After a while however, many of the storylines seemed similar to previous books and I mostly left the genre behind. When I saw Promise to return being advertised on NetGalley, I was intrigued by the combination of an Amish story and a WWII background and decided to request it for review.
1943: Just weeks before Miriam Coblentz and Henry Mast where to have their wedding plans announced in their Amish community, Henry is drafted for army duties. Because of the Amish' pacifist beliefs, Henry ends up in a conscientious objector camp. When Henry arrives home on a short leave, Miriam is overjoyed at the time they will spend together, until Henry changes everything with the news that he enlisted for the army. Having heard about what the war in Europe is really about, Henry believes God has called him to serve in the army and fight for their freedom, a belief no-one in his community understands, not even Miriam. She is sure of her love for Henry though and decides to stand by him, even though this will get her into trouble with the church and lead to cracks in her relationships with family and friends.
Many Amish novels are (with respect) slightly romanticized portrayals of the simple and secluded lifestyle of this intriguing group of Christians. Much emphasis is placed on the close-knit family relationships and the way the community is always there to help when one of their members needs this. In Promise to return, Elizabeth Byler Younts (herself originating from an Amish background) has managed to describe both sides of Amish life. In this novel, the downside of living in a community which adheres to a strict set of rules are explored and described with a rawness and reality I miss in many other Amish fiction. Miriam experiences first-hand how people, even close friends and family, pull away from her when she decides to stand behind Henry's decision to enlist. Her constant struggle to choose between the man she loves and the community she's always known bring you very close to how difficult it must have been for some real Amish couples during the WWII era.
The novel is largely written from Miriam's point-of-view and you get to know her very well while reading the book: her dreams and hopes, her strengths and weaknesses. I had however hoped (and expected, from the synopsis) to also learn more about Henry's experiences. How was it for a young Amish men to go to an army training camp, to live close to all the other young men with such different backgrounds? Even in the letters Henry and Miriam exchanged, not much attention was given to this. I have however heard, the coming novel by Elizabeth Byler Yount wil be about a secondary character from Promise to return, a young man who is also drafted. I hope to read more about the experiences of the Amish men away from their communities in this novel!
There were a few instances where I found the events in Promise to return somewhat hard to believe. A few times, when Miriam had to make an important choice about her future, something happened to her family. This was just a bit too coincidental, especially when it happened more than once.
In general, Promise to return is a well-written debut novel which I would recommend to readers who've tired somewhat from Amish fiction, but who are still interested in this community or for people with an interest in untold stories of WWII.
I received an ebook version of this novel from NetGalley and the publisher Howard Books in exchange for an honest review. Promise to Return will be available from October 8th onwards.