When literary critics speak of a novel as "historical Romance" (with a capital "R"), the term has specific implications for how boldly the characters will be sketched, how rapidly the plot will unfold and resolve, and how seamlessly the author's historical research will be woven into the story. For other readers, the label "romance" (with a lower-case "r") suggests the drama of human mating rituals. Keeper of Hearts meets all expectations of both definitions and does so in effective, interesting ways.
The marketing apparatus squarely puts this novel into the romance camp. The cover shows our heroine–spunky yet vulnerable, sporting remarkably modern hair and lips–in the foreground while a successful suitor hovers behind her.
The back cover synopsis also emphasizes the romantic elements: "It is 1545, a dangerous time for Anabaptists. Anna van Vissers despises Menno Simons and other heretics who caused her papa's death. Yet one by one, her family and friends betray her by receiving the believer's baptism.
"Caught in a storm of rebellion, Anna faces the choices of faith and of love. Will she choose the security of marriage to a dark and handsome Wittenberg printer, or risk her love on Peter, the young Anabaptist? Who will be the keeper of Anna's heart?"
One needn't be a connoisseur of the romance genre to recognize that when one choice is "dark" and unnamed while the other is named in the synopsis and depicted on the cover, it's auf Wiedersehen to the printer of Wittenberg. Suspense on the romance side of the plot comes more from the how than the who.
The explicit attempts to market Keeper of Hearts as a romance novel may, I suspect, alienate some patrons of Mennonite Life who consider the romance genre too frivolous. Beyond the treatment of Anna's romantic quandary, the book is quite successful as historical Romance. Especially interesting is the treatment of such historical elements as the tension between traditional Catholicism and the new ideas of Anabaptism; the relationship between Reformation giant Martin Luther and the Anabaptists, who on the surface seem so similar but are in reality dread enemies; and the role of the relatively new printing press on Luther's reforms and the emerging German middle class.
After Anna's father is executed for having given Menno Simons a ride in his boat, her family is persecuted and forced to flee their native village of Visserwert (near Valkenberg). In the course of their exile, Anna's mother accepts an invitation to visit an old friend, who is married to Martin Luther. The portrait of Luther in the last years of his life is nicely done, showing how the Lutheran reformation grew out of the academic climate of Wittenberg and the political tensions of sixteenth-century Germany. Luther's interest in matchmaking is also shown as he encourages a relationship between Anna and Thedric Bettendorf, the "dark and handsome" printer.
As a Catholic, Anna finds Luther's ideas and rejection of the Pope as disturbing as she finds Anabaptism. This surprising perspective particularly strengthens the novel. Rather than providing sentimental rhapsody on the virtues of Anabaptism, Christner shows Anna torn between the "safe" Catholicism that she seems to take largely for granted and the theological and political dangers of the new Anabaptist heresies. Before Anna can come to terms with either religious position, however, Luther discovers that Anna's deceased father had joined the Anabaptists, so he immediately turns her and her mother out of his home. Luther's actions reflect the historical reality that there was no love lost between Luther and the Anabaptists, whom he considered a danger to his work.
Before considering the end of Keeper of Hearts, the next several paragraphs introduce a digression on critical elements of Anabaptist historical fiction. Because much fiction that deals with the Mennonite and Anabaptist experience falls into the genre of historical fiction, it seems appropriate to explore briefly two key issues by which readers might consider novels like Keeper of Hearts: use of historical material and treatment of dialogue.
As a genre, historical fiction poses a special challenge to writers: how to incorporate unobtrusively the historical research. In addition to telling a compelling story and developing interesting characters, the author must educate readers about the book's particular historical setting. In some cases, the author includes so much explanation into the book's exposition that readers soon forget the fictive elements; in other cases, so little historical material appears that the novel's putative historical period is incidental to the novel's plot. In some books, the author assumes readers' total ignorance of history and goes on to explain everything so obviously and exhaustively that the resentful reader engages neither the time period nor the story or characters.
Christner's solution to this dilemma is an effective one. She tells her story in a straightforward way, incorporating historical material with minimal lecturing. For readers less familiar with historical figures, historical geography, or sixteenth-century material culture, she includes three useful appendices: 1) brief overviews of the historical context and Anabaptist martyrdom; 2) a map of the Holy Roman Empire and "Anna's Political World"; 3) a glossary of people, places, and items mentioned in the text. The glossary seems geared for particularly young readers, however, defining "whetstones" and explaining that "nay" means "no."
A second challenge for historical fiction is how to have characters speak. Authors recognize the need to avoid linguistic anachronism, but in addition, they struggle with the competing desires to present speech that is natural, accessible, and not off-putting for modern readers and to flavor somehow the dialogue with vocabulary or syntax that suggests the historical period. Christner's strategy for reminding readers that her characters did not speak modern English appears to be a liberal scattering of "'tis" throughout speeches, a solution that seems flat to me. Once Christner decided–wisely, in my opinion–not to write in various sixteenth-century German dialects, the speeches have foregone their claims to historical accuracy, so I would have preferred leaving them in more neutral syntax and vocabulary.
It would be untoward to reveal much specific about the ending of the novel, but I will share that I found it dizzying and rather unsatisfying in a deus ex machina sort of way. The resolution of Anna's dual suitors meets all demands of romance (with a lower-case "r") and the sudden plot twists satisfy the demands of Romance (with a capital "R"), but–well, let each reader decide individually. In the end, Keeper of Hearts is one of the better examples of historical Romance that deals with the Mennonite experience.
Readers interested in learning more about Dianne Christner may visit her web site: http://www.diannechristner.com.