Friday, June 24, 2005

book review: Levi's Will

Book: Levi's Will
Author: W. Dale Cramer
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
ISBN: 0-7642-2995-8

He begins to see that every man’s failure dips its roots into the previous generation and drops its seeds into the next. Blame, as a wise man once told him, is the province of the innocent and the omniscient. – the thoughts of Will McGruder in Levi’s Will.

Levi’s Will is Dale Cramer's third novel. It is the story of Will McGruder (Mullett), who runs away from his Old Order Amish home near Apple Creek, Ohio at the end of June, 1943. He leaves the summer farm work, a pregnant girl friend and his demanding and righteous father Levi Mullett. He also leaves the only home and life he’s ever known with its accompanying demands:

"You will live in this house and do this kind of work. You will marry this girl, wear these clothes and cut your hair this way. You will have as many children as your wife can bear, and teach them to live the same."

He leaves to join the "World" with its infinite choices where he will control his own life and choose his own destiny.

We follow Will (and younger brother Tobe, who accompanies him at first) as they jump the train, then find work and move from farm to farm. The tale winds through the war years (Will joins the army), and takes us to Will’s return home, his marriage to Helen and the raising of his own family. Through all these events, though, the real story is of Will making his way back home, to the heart and the blessing of his father – something made practically impossible because when Will leaves, he is put under the church’s ban.

Of course, the story is about more than prodigal sons and fathers. Cramer addresses, via characters and plot, themes as varied as work, marriage, family roles, religious denominations, pacifism, going to war and, above all, forgiveness.

Cramer, as always, has given us believable and memorable characters. The main character, Will, is complex and imperfect (bound as he is by the web of lies he's created), yet we root for him all the way. His wife, Helen, comes across as tough and loyal, though always the southern belle. I recognized their son Riley:

(Summer 1968)...And then Riley came home on holidays giddy with the newfound sophistication of a college freshman, his hand out for more money and his trunk full of dirty clothes for his mother to wash....Will did challenge Riley once, when he was parroting the latest rhetoric from some rabble-rousing leftist he’d heard speak in an antiwar rally at college.

"When did you turn into a communist?" Will asked.

Riley just laughed that arrogant Billy the Kid laugh of his. "I’m no communist," he said. "Too many rules. I think I’m an anarchist."

And of course, there’s the patriarch Levi who, when Will leaves home, is

...a man with thundering demands for immediate and unconditional surrender, delivered with the innate fury of his coal-fired contempt.

But Levi mellows, so that near the end,

When he got up from his chair by the stove in the living room he looked even shorter and thinner and more bent than last year. There was something else different about him too...he looked Will in the eye now. He even smiled a little – not much, but a little.

Cramer's skill as a storyteller is displayed in the way he has structured the book. Each chapter’s heading is the date in which the events occur. Chapter 1 begins "January 1985" when Will has returned to Ohio to attend his father’s funeral. (Cramer signals that 1985 is the present by writing those chapters in present tense). Chapter 2 then goes back to "June 1943" and the story’s beginning. In the succeeding chapters, we flip back and forth, between the earlier dates and 1985 putting the pieces of the story together rather like one would piece a quilt. I found this device somewhat reassuring because in the 1985 chapters Will seemed settled regarding his father and I sensed they may have had made their peace.

However, there is still a disturbing and mysterious element in that present part – Will’s son, Riley. I found myself wondering why would a 30-something son need to be treated with the caution and care Will reserves for him. Which, of course, led me to look for clues about why Riley was the way he was in the chapters that filled in the back story. I was intrigued when it came out that his perception of his father was very like Will’s perception of his father. In this way Cramer makes us aware of how life is layered and intertwined with the past. Cramer’s use of this structure and his ability to convey complexity are, I think, two of the reasons I found this such a satisfying read.

(And talk about layering – what about that title! When I first read it I thought this was going to be about Levi’s will as in "last will and testament." Someone else said he thought it meant Levi’s will as in "strength of resolve." Of course no sooner did I get into the book than I realized this was a story about Levi’s son Will -- Levi’s Will. By the end of the book I came to see how the first two meanings were as apropos as the third. Kudos to Cramer’s wife Pam who, according to the end notes, came up with that title).

I also learned a lot about the Amish from this book. The people and their sometimes unusual customs are explained with a frankness that is always tempered with respect and compassion. Cramer who, according to his bio notes, "...was the second of four children born to a runaway Amishman turned soldier," is obviously well qualified to write about these people – his people. If the names in the book’s "Acknowledgments" are any indication, he has a host of Amish people behind him to vouch for the credibility of the world he has created.

If I compare this book to Cramer's other novels, Sutter's Cross and Bad Ground, I would say it’s written without their literary razzle dazzle. To be sure, we are given the same peppering of insights and aphorisms. But as a whole, the language is simpler, doesn’t draw attention to itself but seems toned down, perhaps on purpose to stay consistent with the story’s subject matter – the plain folk and their simple life.

Finally, beyond the skill with which it’s written, there is something about this book that makes it more than a finely told family tale. The wisdom and depth of understanding coming from it made me wonder more than once, what did it really cost Cramer, in lived experience and soul-searching, to write this story. It asks deep questions like what does God want from you, how do you know what real love is, and how do you conquer anger at hurts as deep as a father’s rejection. But it doesn’t preach. Instead it suggests answers in such a winsome and moving way, you’ll be pondering them long after you’ve read the last page. Highly recommended.


Disclaimer: The book Levi's Will was sent to me by Mind & Media as a gift from the publisher who donated the books for reviewers.


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