“The Secret” by Beverly Lewis: this is what a “Christian novel” should be

"The Secret," by Beverly Lewis

My review in a nutshell? I loved this book.

I had read the blurb, so I knew a little of what would develop in Beverly Lewis’s latest Amish novel, The Secret, due out in April. But having this foreknowledge or not, I’d have kept reading. The action in the book was pretty low key, but that’s what you’d expect, since the plot features an Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Yet the story was sweet without being saccharine, a tale of a culture — personified by Grace Byler, the main character — that values community, good food, hearty work, and decent living.

I couldn’t put it down. Despite the rather strict rules in this community, you recognize the complexity of the relationships and the depths of the people’s feelings. And yes, you also see the difficulty these rules put the folk in, when their teaching against being preoccupied with “self” collides with a genuine crisis where they need, most of all, to be comforted.

You become truly interested in the members of the Byler family, wondering how they will cope with the crisis that strikes them, centred on their mother’s secret, and how they’ll choose their futures. The Amish way of life is presented not so much as “old fashioned” as it is simpler, more willing to share others’ joys and burdens than the one we readers come from. Reading about this community, you never feel condescending toward it. There might even be a little envy.

The book follows two plotlines: the main one, with Grace and her Amish family, and another featuring Heather, a young woman from the “outside” world, who faces a troubling medical diagnosis. At first these plots seem completely unrelated (apart from interesting parental parallels). But the stories finally begin to intersect near the end of the book, and you realize that they are going to intertwine more and more deeply.

But not in this book, not yet. Because I discovered, at the end, that this is only the first in a new series for Lewis: the “Seasons of Grace.” It’s a measure of her accomplishment that when I realized that the story will continue into other books, my first thought was, “Oh no, we have to wait to find out what happens now??”

I already can’t wait for the next book in this series. And having discovered Beverly Lewis and her novels, I want to read more. Although Lewis is a Christian novelist, the Christianity, in The Secret at least, was not preachy or in your face. The story of the people themselves was first and foremost, and never used as an excuse to sermonize or condemn.

Meanwhile, I have “a secret” of my own: my Mennonite ancestors moved up to Canada a century or so ago — from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The way this lovely region and its people were presented in the story made me feel the way Heather feels: that some day I must spend some time there, even if it’s just to walk and breathe.

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