Written by: Crissa-Jean Chappell
Published by: Merit Press, January 2017
Themes: Amish, Old Order Amish, Rumspringa, friendship, LARPing
Reviewed from an ARC, which I received from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.
All the trees have been chopped down. Me and my best friend, Alice, used to play hide-and-seek in this empty lot. Now it’s just a field of stumps. I listen for night birds—whippoorwills and owls—but hear none. Only the rumble of traffic, growing closer, then farther away, keeping time like a pulse.
Every year, Lucy waits eagerly for the arrival of the “snowbirds,” the Old Order Amish who come trundling into Florida on buses from the north, bringing Lucy’s best friend Alice, with whom she’s spent every winter she can remember. This winter is different. At sixteen, Alice is in the middle of “Rumspringa,” a season in which Amish teens try out forbidden temptations, in order to get them out of their system. Lucy is part of a different sect, in which teens aren’t allowed such bold experimentation, and she’s fighting to keep up as Alice races from one wild party to the next. Then, one night after just such a party, Alice vanishes. Wracked by guilt, Lucy knows that she should have been watching out for Alice, but instead, she was kissing Faron, an Older Order boy shunned by his society. Now, Lucy plunges into a search for her best friend—while also hiding her own secret, which could put her in even more danger. (Goodreads)
Why I like this book:
Ever since I watched THE WITNESS with a young Harrison Ford in it in 1985, I have been fascinated with the Amish. I have had some close strongly Mennonite friends over the years, and they of course share the same Anabaptist roots (while not being as separatist as the Amish.) This past summer I spent some time in Pennsylvania during my big road trip and visited several Amish markets and communities. Snowbirds proved a sweet and moving foray into this faith community, and I got a kick out of some of the Pennsylvania Dutch as I understand Swiss German!
One of the characteristics of a strong novel is how it blows away stereotypes, and that is exactly what SNOWBIRDS achieves. It brings alive the two different Amish communities, The Old Order and Lucy’s Florida sect, deftly drawing you into the heart and values of these communities, through the characters and cultures with their flaws and strengths. It was a spark of genius that led the author to contrast two Amish communities rather than contrasting one with a more secular group or vastly different Christian denomination. Somehow the similarities allow for greater contrast for the reader.
The nuanced characterization and universal teen desires to protect friends and forge new experiences, lure the reader into the mystery and the exposee of the cultures is subtle and satisfying. By the end of the novel I no longer felt like a total outsider looking in! Rumspringa no longer felt like a foreign rite de passage, but instead I could parallels with the wild oat-sewing years of many young people before conforming to parental and cultural expectations. This is a story with layers, personal, religious, geographical…. told through a lens of beautiful physical and emotional detail. One sensed the author’s intimate knowledge of the Florida scenery and extensive research into Amish practice. While Lucy’s order does not practice Rumspringa, this summer of transition in her friendships and faith is very much her coming of age. Her boundary-pushing and courage combined with respectfulness won’t leave the reader indifferent— a protagonist who grabs you from the get go. She’s a nuanced character and this novel provides a window into lifestyles we too quickly judge without sufficient knowledge.
There’s a great combo of character and mystery driving SNOWBIRDS and the pacing meant I was reluctant to put it down. At this time of divisiveness and separation in the nation, it is wonderful to see young adult books like this, which can impart empathy in us for those from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds to ours. Whether you are an Amish or Catholic or Muslim or atheist teen, this is an awesome read. My review would be incomplete without mentioning the rad secondary character, Crystal, who’s a zany wheelchair-using LARPer (live action role playing). LOVED this character.
This link takes you to the author’s website.
And, here are a few great sites for further information about the Amish: