Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: The Outcast

The Outcast is a stand-alone novel and a fantastic debut by Jolina Petersheim. Set in the Old Order Mennonite community of Copper Creek, Tennessee, it is described as an inspirational retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter. This unusual and compelling novel stands out on many levels and is one that I can highly recommend.


Raised in an Old Order Mennonite community, Rachel Stoltzfus is a strong-willed single woman, content living apart from mainstream society until whispers stir the moment her belly swells with new life. Refusing to repent and name the partner in her sin, Rachel feels the wrath of the religious sect as she is shunned by those she loves most. She is eventually coerced into leaving by her brother-in-law, the bishop.
But secrets run deep in this cloistered community, and the bishop is hiding some of his own, threatening his conscience and his very soul. When the life of Rachel’s baby is at stake, however, choices must be made that will bring the darkness to light, forever changing the lives of those who call Copper Creek home.

My thoughts

The Outcast is an extremely strong novel with mature writing, complex characterization and storytelling from a first-time author. Although set in a Mennonite community, it is in a class all by itself when it comes to the Amish/Mennonite genre. Themes of legalism vs. forgiveness, dysfunctional father/daughter relationships, and holistic remedies vs. modern-day medicine are just a few elements in this story that I found emotionally moving and riveting.

"My face burns with the heat of a hundred stares." With this opening sentence, Jolina introduces Rachel and draws the reader into a story of betrayal, pride, hypocrisy - as well as repentance and forgiveness. Rachel's illegitimate pregnancy placed her amid those few who remained in the church while living outside its doctrinal parameters, and she exhibits great strength of character in the face of public scorn.

Old Order Mennonite church

The Outcast has a strong, complex ensemble cast: Leah, Rachel's twin sister who was selfless to her core . . . loveable Ida Mae, who befriended Rachel . . . Judah, Rachel's childhood friend and soul mate . . .  Norman Troyer, a renowned holistic doctor who believes in the power of modern-day medicine . . . Tobias King, a bishop "so consumed with saving his reputation, he is in the process of losing his soul."

The story is unusually narrated by two voices: Rachel and that of deceased bishop, Amos King, father of Tobias and Judah. The voice of Amos makes me think of heaven's great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12:1. Amos realizes that he allowed Tobias to hide his sin and longs to help. "If I could somehow communicate to him that repentance is much more important than pride, and to her that forgiveness will break chains while anger will only keep her in bondage." Amos's voice added greatly to the story and I loved the depth that his perspective brought.

Jolina uses the vehicle of a child's illness very effectively to bring hidden actions into the light, which leads to a satisfying, but realistic, conclusion. I hesitate to use the almost overused reviewer phrase that "I found it hard to put this book down," but that is certainly true in this case. The Outcast goes on my list of favorites, and I am looking forward to Jolina's next book, The Midwife.

The Outcast is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, and I highly recommend it, not only to fans of Amish/Mennonite stories, but to all readers.

Jolina Petersheim

Taken from Jolina's interview with Cynthia Robertson . . .

Q:  What gave you the initial idea for The Outcast?

A:  Four years ago, a family member told a true story about the power of desire that was left unchecked and how it trickled down through an Old Order Mennonite family, not only affecting that generation, but the generations to come. We were all sitting around the kitchen, and after the person finished speaking, I gasped, “That’s a book!”

Q:  One of my favorite characters is the ghost, Amos. How did you come up with him?

A:  My husband's grandfather, Amos, was my inspiration. . . . When I was standing beside Amos’s grave, I had this picture of my flawed heroine, Rachel, standing beside the former bishop of Copper Creek’s graveyard with this new life in her arms. Then I imagined that the spirit of the man whose body was being lowered into his grave could watch her pain from heaven and understand it more clearly than he had on earth. I knew then that I had the opening scene for The Outcast and the second narrator for my novel.

Full interview:

Visit Jolina's website at to learn more.

This book was provided by Tyndale Publishing in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: Flight of the Earls

Based on Irish immigration in the 1840s, Flight of the Earls by Michael K. Reynolds is the first book in the Heirs of Ireland series. From the Great Potato Famine in Roscommon, Ireland, to the poverty and corruption of Five Points NYC, to the war with Mexico in Veracruz, this novel captures the indelible spirit and hope of the Irish people. For this reader, Flight of the Earls is a rare gem in the Christian fiction field.


It’s Ireland in 1846. When her family’s small farm is struck by the blight of the Great Potato Famine, 24-year-old Clare Hanley heads out along with her younger brother Seamus on a harrowing journey across the ocean to the Promised Land of America. Once arriving in New York, Clare is both overwhelmed and enraptured by this coming-of-age city of intrigue, romance, the arts, squalor, wealth, uneven freedoms and exploding opportunities. Here she discovers love, adventure, and a terrible secret which threatens to destroy her family and all she believes.

My thoughts

It's obvious that Michael is a talented author who writes from the heart in this saga that follows two members of the Hanley family as they leave their beloved homeland of Roscommon, Ireland due to dire economic conditions, and sail to what would surely be a land of opportunity that would save their family back home. Michael has a wonderful ability when it comes to creating complex characters that the reader cares about and conveying a sense of place through his elegant prose filled with vivid descriptions.

I have always loved all things Irish, especially their music, so I enjoyed Michael's description of the Irish people - the spirit that shone above their suffering and devastation. One particular scene on the boat stands out where, in spite of the indescribable conditions in steerage . . . "A man with a fiddle began to play tunes of Ireland, tunes of joy and the unshakable resolution of its people. They sang and some danced, lifting their skirts, locking arms, and spinning as the crew trimmed the sails and looked down from above."

Clare Hanley is a strong character who takes on burdensome responsibilities, yet she yearns for the inner contentment and peace that she always saw in her Grandma Ella. Clare's brother, Seamus, seems to easily find misfortune, often from his own doing. "My father always said I was worthless. I spent my life proving him right."

Five Points

New York's Five Points area played such a huge part in this narrative that I felt it became a main character. Believing they would find in America a land of great wealth and opportunity, these Irish immigrants discovered themselves in an area that was quite the opposite, yet hope was never extinguished. One of Clare's friends, a prizefighter named John Barden, says: "I love the Five Points. The newspapers don't speak kindly of her. They see the beggars, the poor, the beaten, the homeless, the drunks, thieves, and whores. But I see a place full of good people, short on blessings, but full of hope and courage. I see a place groaning for its chance to prosper. Only to be kicked down when it tries to rise to its feet. Sounds like the Irish, don't it?"

I loved the way hope is shown through another character, Andrew, who works for his father's newspaper, the New York Daily. Passionate about wanting to do more than just write about poverty, Andrew pursues his dream of a ministry house that would feed, lodge, and teach skills to those in need . . . "A sanctuary from the cruelties of this life. No one would be turned away, and each would know their comfort would be provided by the grace of God."

Flight of the Earls is a historical novel filled with realism and emotion, a people of resilience and hope, and superb storytelling. I highly recommend this novel to all readers.

The second book in this series, In Golden Splendor, has recently been released. It continues the story of Seamus.

Michael K. Reynolds

In Michael's words, taken from an interview on

Please share your inspiration for your Heirs of Ireland series:

I have grandparents on both sides of the family and many great aunts and uncles who emigrated from Ireland. On the couple of occasions I was blessed to visit the Emerald Isle; I was embraced by my Irish relatives as if I had sprouted from their own soil. Having my characters engage with the rich tapestries of my heritage has been an intimate and rewarding experience.

What surprising discovery did you make about Irish immigrants while researching this era?

The Irish are a complicated people and it’s something of a miracle their glorious culture and spirit survived their tragic history. When they arrived in America in droves as a result of the Great Potato Famine, they were loathed and mocked for flooding the labor market and for living in slum-like conditions. Yet, the Irish in turn treated the immigrants of Africa with an equal level of derision and malice. Those who were being bullied became the bully. But beyond this significant historical blemish, the Irish forever imbued in America their unique sense of humor, deep faith and formidable work ethic.

What one standout characteristic did you give to each of Clare and Seamus?

Both of these characters were forced to rise above their upbringing and their tragic circumstances. Clare is lifted by her powerful inner drive to care for others. Seamus is burdened by his past and often drifts without purpose, but his tantalizing glow of potential is what draws us to him.

What is one of the spiritual themes that runs through Flight of the Earls and why did you choose that particular theme?

It is no accident that the Heirs of Ireland Series is a trilogy because each of the books is spiritually themed around a different person of the Trinity, although at a subtle and foundational level. Flight of the Earls, the first of these books, is centered around fatherhood. It explores the generational impact of our earthly fathers and our desperate need for connection with our Heavenly Father.

Barn at Roscommon, Ireland

To learn more about Michael and his books, visit his website at

This book was provided by B&H Publishing through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.