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Writer Wednesday: Historical Amish Romance Novel Joseph’s Dilemma

February 17, 2016

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About 250 years ago in the 1750s, lived a young man, Joseph Hochstetler, a very early and distant relative of mine (and of thousands born into that Mennonite “tribe”). His family was tragically attacked by original occupants of lands “settled” by some of my original tribe. Joseph’s mother and young sister were scalped and killed, and he, his father and one brother were taken into captivity by Native Americans during the French and Indian War in eastern Pennsylvania.

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Ervin Stutzman, left, and Shirley Showalter, right, talk about their books at the 2013 Phoenix Mennonite Church USA convention.

Another distant relative, Ervin Stutzman has been imagining, researching, and laboriously writing three fictional accounts of what might have transpired after such a tragic scenario. Joseph’s Dilemma (published May 2015) weds historical fiction—and romance, if you will. I admire Stutzman tremendously for writing the whole Return to Northkill trilogy; the first book called Jacob’s Choice (about the father) was published in 2013 which I wrote about here. The final book is set to come out this October 2016, titled Christian’s Hope, the story of Joseph’s other brother. Over the last 10-15 years, Stutzman’s ability to doggedly research and churn out prose all the while holding down other jobs as Eastern Mennonite Seminary dean (earlier) and now executive director of Mennonite Church USA is amazing and can be motivating for other writers who must keep a “day job.”

Fiction writing is not easy in my opinion. Stutzman is improving greatly in the genre. Here he does a reasonable job of showing us the action in progress rather than just telling us what happens. He gives us surprising plot turns, even when the main dilemma is set up by the cover artwork, depicting the basic premise of the novel. Through the fiction we are allowed to enter a different and realistically portrayed reality: we meet a Delaware Indian mother who longs for a son to ease the emotional and physical woes of a widow and single mom (someone to hunt meat for her and her young daughter), after losing both a son and a husband in hostilities. The main points of view shift between young Joseph and his eventual adoptive mother, Touching Sky. Another Amish romance author, Adina Senft, calls Stutzman’s prose “spare” (that’s a good thing in my book!) and recognizes “a tour de force of research.”

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In an email, Stutzman allows that other readers have also told him that his fiction writing skills have grown, and in person, he gets a glint in the eye and promises that the new book, Christian’s Hope, will be his best yet. I doubt that is just writer hope or advertising hype. In his first book in this series, Jacob’s Choice, I felt Stutzman almost got bogged down in trying to write a fictionalized version of true history with too much detail. In this volume about Joseph, since much less is known about this main character and real life historical person, Stutzman takes freer reign (within the bounds of accurately portraying his research) to imagine what it could have been like for a young captive like Joseph. The awakening of a young man’s interest in the opposite gender over the course of six years of captivity is particularly winsome and played with just the right touch.

So it was pleasurable* to finally sit down and crack the pages of Joseph’s Dilemma. Yes, I’m behind, and have a large stack of books I continue to plow through.

My mother and I ended up reading the book at the same time. She too was impressed by the insights the book offers about Native American customs of the 1700s, and the turmoil brought about after being captured by an “enemy;” how could one ever grow to like and love those enemies, and then what happens when as part of a treaty, you are forced to go back to your original people?

In the first book in the series (and of course it’s best to read this trilogy in order), we meet young Joseph as a teen who picked up a gun to try to defend his family against the attackers but is ordered by his father not to shoot. While loving his father, he does not understand why his father’s religious beliefs do not allow him to protect his family. One of the first books I ever owned (but got rid of long ago), was Captive of the Delaware, a book of fiction for children published by Herald Press, using some of these same themes.

Joseph learns to speak in Delaware and eventually finds himself dreaming in his new language—a definite sign that he is acclimating. Joseph explores the faith of his adopted mother as expressed by the Delaware (also known as Lenape) tribe, and Stutzman steps back enough from his own deep seated Anabaptist Christian convictions regarding the power of forgiveness and the ultimate futility of weapons of war, to help us also better understand some of the beliefs original peoples share with many people of Christian faith. But he doesn’t gloss over the sharp distinctions, either. As the book’s ending nears, the reader is as torn as Joseph—a sure sign also that as a fiction writer, Stutzman has done an excellent job of engaging us.

I’m also happily anticipating reading Christian’s Hope for what I hope is a satisfying end to the stories of these three men—cousins by both blood and faith!

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Author Ervin Stutzman

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[Disclosure: While I work as one of several managing editors for Herald Press, I have not been involved in editing or marketing Stutzman’s books other than to help do news releases and social media; for the entire Northkill series, I also had the opportunity to weigh in on the models chosen for the cover shoots for the series and what was the right clothing for that period? Great fun!]

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One of the things I enjoy so much about books is just opening one up, no electronics, and turning one page after the other as I drift off to sleep. No, I don’t have or want an ebook reader (but I’m happy for those who do. We authors love readers however we can get them!) But with a plain old book, I don’t have to worry about a charged battery, having yet more screen time in my day, losing a cord (if I travel with it), spilling water or coffee on it, or cracking the screen. And really, one less electronic thing in my life is a good thing.

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You can buy Joseph’s Dilemma here, (paper or ebook) or through your favorite local bookstore and other online retailers.

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Are you part of the Hostetler/Hochstetler clan? Let me know or visit the official Hochstetler website, or join the Facebook group “Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler.

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Do you enjoy an ebook reader? Which one? Or are you a hold out like me?

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How does the story of Joseph compare to hostages today who begin to identify strongly with their captors? 

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8 Comments
  1. A short note from New Zealand. I agree with your assessment. I’m a member of a writer’s group with Ervin. He loves learning about plot structure and character development. So exciting to see him apply any insights he gains immediately.

  2. I’ve been enjoying watching your amazing photos from New Zealand–so cool, and with others, will be fascinated to hear/see more. I thought, oh there’s no chance of hearing from Shirley on this post. 🙂 And here you are! Your note about the writer’s group is wonderful to hear. Thanks for touching base even as you explore new territory!

  3. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler permalink

    My peaceful ancestors lived nearby in the Northkill settlement. Yoders!
    I’m happily reading the first book in the trilogy, and I look forward to more.

  4. Glad to hear from a peaceful relative who lived nearby! Enjoy the book and thanks for checking in here!

  5. I admire the sacrifice and effort Ervin has shown in undertaking this historical work of fiction. The cover is very appealing.

    As I draft my own memoir weaving in historical facts I have more and more appreciation for the extensive research this undertaking would require. A “tour de force of research” caught my eye and my awe.

    • I doubt Ervin thinks of it as sacrifice but who am I to say; I think he enjoys it, I just don’t know how he does it. And you pique my interest here with your memoir in weaving in history. I don’t usually think of my own life in terms of historical context. Looking forward to your work!

  6. Athanasia permalink

    I most enjoyed his Tobias and Emma books. I like all the detail.

    No, I do not use an ereader. I like the feel of a real book. I find it disappointing when I am trying to find a book for our library and it is available only in an ebook. Especially when it is a children’s book , picture or chapter. Children don’t need to be holding an electronic device in their hands from toddler hood on up.

    That is interesting about your involvement in the cover. Nothing bothers me more than a cover that is not reflective of the description of the setting or the characters. I get lots of book donations. One day there was a large bag of Amish fiction dropped off by a neighbor to the church. Some had art work that was just so poor. They actually had the young Amish women looking as if they had makeup on…lipstick , eye shadow. I think they were by Avon, if that is possible. I put those in the book sale.

  7. I guess I would have been surprised if you had said you use an e-reader. 🙂 And I totally agree that books for toddlers should be hands on, paper and ink. I wonder if grandmothers of old thought it a shame for orally shared stories to be printed on paper or if they were glad for details to be remembered better that way! Times do change and I often wonder now what technology our grandchildren will use.

    Kudos to you for not wanting to share poor examples of fiction or artwork!

    Some of the models we looked at had wore make up of course on in their typical model photos, and evidently some publishers don’t pay enough attention to those subtle details. We try to do careful research on that end too (especially types of clothing worn in different eras) but sometimes when budgets are tight (in our case) and deadlines are looming, short cuts are taken and fixes are obtained by fixing the photo rather than spending more money on an expensive photo shoot. So much to think about!

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