Kim Vogel Sawyer is a highly productive writer—she’s written nearly 40 books over the last decade—of
gentle stories of hope, as her website notes. Some of Sawyer’s books are set in the nineteenth century, but her most recent have been set among the Mennonite populations of rural Kansas, including her recent When Mercy Rains, the first in a trilogy of novels about the intergenerational Zimmerman family. Sawyer herself lives in central Kansas and draws from her Mennonite family history in her writing, but an evangelical Christian theology and aesthetic are at the heart of her novels.
Sawyer joins a long line of Christian romance genre writers, back to Grace Livingston Hill in the early 1900s, though the genre re-merged as a major market force in the late 1970s. At that time, secular romances were becoming increasingly sexualized. Evangelical Christian culture was adopting some of the aesthetics of mainstream pop culture already with Christian pop music, and Christian romance novels quickly found an audience of women who wanted to enjoy the romance found in Harlequin paperbacks but found the sex, which was nearly always between unmarried partners and often violent, troubling. Janette Oke’s
prairie romances, set in Canada, filled the void, outselling books by and for men in Christian bookstores. By the 1980s, the Christian Booksellers Association found its list of bestsellers dominated by Christian romance novels, and until the Left Behind series, Christian fiction for men had no equivalent to Janette Oke’s novels. She set the model for Christian romance: a sweet but sturdy heroine, a gentle hero, some talk about spiritual life without theological details (in order to appeal to a broad market and also because the writers are often non-denominational evangelical Christians), the presentation of the
gospel message of substitutionary atonement, and no sexual contact and little or no sexual tension. The Christian romance genre, which now accounts for about 17% of all romance novels sold, has developed multiple subgenres, including historical novels, fantasy, crime, military, and Amish and Mennonite, a genre explored in Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s highly engaging The Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels.
When Mercy Rains unfolds like others in its genre, with a tension between the demands of Plain life and the temptations of secular sin: Suzanne Zimmerman leaves her Old Order community in rural Kansas at age 18, hiding a pregnancy she has kept secret from her boyfriend Paul but not from her harsh mother. Suzanne is shipped to Indiana where she will give her baby up for adoption to her cousin’s family before returning to Kansas. Instead, she takes off her head covering and cape dress (though she replaces it with modest skirts and dresses, never pants) and pursues her own life in Indiana, earning a nursing degree and pursuing a career in a nursing home and raising her daughter, Alexa, on her own, never telling her family about the existence of her daughter, nor telling her daughter anything about her own family. Nineteen years later, her father already dead, Suzanne is called back home to care for her mother, who has been paralyzed in a farming accident. Suzanne hesitates, fearful of revealing her secret, undoing the life she has built for herself and Alexa in Indiana, and hurting her daughter, who does not know that her existence has been kept a secret from her extended family. Encouraged by her evangelical mentors in Indiana, Suzanne returns home to care for her mother until a permanent nurse can be hired, bringing Alexa with her to the shock of everyone, including, eventually, her old boyfriend Paul, now a widower with a nine year old son of his own. Paul, incidentally, just happens to be renovating the homestead to make it wheelchair accessible for Mother Zimmerman.
Up until this point, plot wise, When Mercy Rains is not remarkably different from other genre romances (secret babies, self-sufficient heroines, handsome widows, uneasy trips home, painful pasts). Sawyer does, however, write some enjoyable twists into the end of the plot, ones that make the book more than a strict romance. Here, Sawyer is helped by the fact that this book is the first of a trilogy, so she has 600 more pages to work with, if she wants to bring the plot back to a storyline that more closely hews to the conventions of the genre. (When Grace Sings, which picks up the story with Alexa, comes out this spring.)
Books with Old Order Mennonites and Amish as the central characters, like When Mercy Rains, are seldom written by members of those groups. Authors do, however, like Sawyer, make appeals to authenticity by stressing their
roots among Plain people or highlighting their proximity to such communities. As with other kinds of romance novels, Amish and Mennonite romances incorporate ample detail about home life, including fashion and textiles, crafts and handwork, gardening, and cooking, with many novels including, in the appendix, a recipe or two referenced in the book. (When Mercy Rains includes both an oatmeal chocolate chip recipe and one for
baked goulash for a crowd.) While many of the details are accurate, some are not—and in ways that illustrate a lack of understanding Old Order values. For example, the Old Order Mennonites in the story participate in gravesite decoration on Memorial Day—a holiday explicitly about honoring the war dead. In another scene, Suzanne and her mother spend a day shopping at a mall in Wichita, where they enter a Build-A-Bear workshop and, inexplicably, Mother Zimmerman chooses to make stuffed animals for the adult women in the family, outfitting Alexa’s with a tuxedo and top hat, choices that seem at odds with her plain dress. While her mother and grandmother are away in Wichita, Alexa, in a make-over scene typical of light women’s fiction, tidies up her grandmother’s dingy old farmhouse, rearranges the furniture, sorts through the attic to find heirlooms and antiques that will look better than what her grandmother has on display, and then has the exterior of the house repainted in colors inspired by a home decorating magazine—
window frames with ocher with slate on the inside trim and
slate blue on the fascia boards (269). It is hard to imagine a gesture more disrespectful of Old Order Mennonite culture.
Such criticisms may seem nitpicky, but they are only symptomatic of how When Mercy Rains, like the majority of novels about Amish and Mennonite characters, present evangelical Christian ideas through
Plain characters. Indeed, the main themes, characterizations, and plot points of the stories are often in direct conflict with traditional Anabaptist ideals of simplicity and nonviolence and are more reflective of evangelical culture’s concerns and beliefs. Sawyer’s novel is no exception. For example, she ignores historic Anabaptist teachings on salvation in favor of an evangelical version when she has Paul tell his young son that his mother had witnessed the young child’s born-again experience.
Before she died, Paul tells him,
you came into our room and told us you’d asked Jesus to take away your sins… And she was the happiest I’d ever seen her. Because then she knew your place was secured in heaven and she would see you again someday (228-229). The language, as well as the theology, are from straight from an evangelical Christian tract and are standard in Christian romance novels, whether set in Amish or Mennonite communities or elsewhere.
Likewise, the plot of When Mercy Rains relies upon tenets of evangelical purity culture, which reduces a woman’s worth to her status as a virgin at marriage and demands that men invest heavily in policing women’s sexuality. The story begins as Suzanne’s mother forces her to board a bus to Indiana, where she will have her baby and place the child in a two-parent family. The next 20 years of her life are shaped by the shame not merely of her pregnancy but of her premarital sexual experience. The shame is so deep that she is unable to return home even for her father’s funeral. In the meantime, Paul lingers behind, heartbroken at all the damage he imagines their lone consensual sexual encounter caused:
He’d wronged Suzy. Badly. In the worst way. She’d trusted him, and he led her down a pathway of ruin. It didn’t matter that he’d only been eighteen and so deeply in love he lost all will to resist temptation. It didn’t matter than she’d carved a good life for herself elsewhere…. It didn’t matter that he’d gone on to fall in love with Karina Kornelson and followed the sect’s and God’s courting mandates to the letter. All that mattered was that he’d wronged Suzy. And out of fear or shame or desperation she’d left her home and family. For good. How did a man forget perpetrating such pain on another soul? (59)
When he realizes that Suzanne has a child, he wonders,
Had his indiscretion led Suzy down a path of promiscuity…? (74). Later, when Suzanne’s brother Clete realizes that Paul
lay with his sister, he knocks Paul to the ground with a single punch to the jaw, an act justified even in the nonviolent Mennonite community Sawyer creates because two decades ago Clete was unable to defend his younger sister’s purity (208). In other words, female sexuality requires protection by men from men, even when sex acts are consensual, or else lives are ruined because having mutually pleasurable sex in a loving and consensual sexual relations are
the worst thing that can befall a woman. (And, indeed, Suzanne seems to accept this, too; she never pursues a romantic relationship again, devoting herself entirely to her daughter, as penance for her sin, and remorse inflects much of her inner monologue.)
When Paul finally confronts Suzanne about her pregnancy, she asks him to consider their other options.
A have-to marriage? In this community? she suggests sarcastically.
We would have lived with the stigma of our youthful indiscretion our entire lives. And our daughter would have grown up under a cloud of recrimination (258). Both Paul and Suzanne recognize that she is correct—the culture of purity and shame that characterize evangelical Christianity makes an out-of-wedlock pregnancy a source of constant shame. Paul and Suzanne do not want to make Alexa feel that she is a source of shame, but Suzanne has treated her so by keeping her existence a secret, and both recognize that their community would always note Alexa’s unholy conception.
More significantly, neither Paul nor Suzanne challenge the community’s standards or suggest different model of sexual ethics for Alexa, even though their lives were radically shaped by the response Suzanne anticipated her pregnancy would prompt. Indeed, both stress that they do not want future generations to make their mistake of premarital sexual contact but provide no more instruction on how to do that than their own parents apparently did, nor are they able to link their community’s cruel and destructive judgment of people who violate its sexual norms to the culture of purity that they themselves espouse. Instead, they stress the dire consequences of failing to maintain strict
courting mandates. Paul warns his children:
Seek Him first in everything you do, honor His Biblical commands, and you will be able to live your life without regrets (322)—and here
Biblical commandments really mean evangelical Christianity’s rules of sex, rules that reflect cultural notions of women as victims or targets of male sexual desire and thus requiring protection by men.
Of course, Old Order Mennonites do not hold libertine views of sex—their children aren’t getting more comprehensive sex ed than Suzanne, Paul, or Alexa did—but Sawyer’s unrelenting focus on non-marital sex as a wrong that men commit against women and as powerful enough to ruin lives across generations raises the stakes on romance, sex, love, and marriage so high that it is hard to see how anyone in future Zimmerman Restoration novels can live happily ever after. If, after all, a community so values
God’s commands about sex that it wrecks lives in pursuit of purity, then the community is likely already wrecking lives because of its judgmental legalism, even if no one ever violates its sexual code.
There is a lesson there for readers, especially those who feel tension between hospitality and purity, but since Sawyer supports the purity myth in her novel, it’s not one I think she meant for this story to teach. Here’s trusting that readers will learn to choose hospitality anyway.