Three generations of the Lehman family of Wisconsin come to the annual Thanksgiving celebration with a complicated understanding of what holds them together as a family. A fourth generation, long deceased, is also present, intruding through memories of secrets hidden in the cracks of life, secrets that will not stay covered.
The adults and teenagers gather at the home of Charlotte and James Lehman to stuff themselves with food, catch up on family news, offer sly snipes, if not with words then with thoughts, and compliment when expected.
Hosts Charlotte and James consider themselves liberated Mennonites, having cast aside uncomfortable customs like head coverings and plain clothing. They now attend a community church. Neither Charlotte nor her two siblings have stayed with a Mennonite congregation. That is something for less progressive people.
Charlotte is into golfing, modern cooking and maintaining a stylish home. James cherishes his work with his 80 dairy cows despite the shrinking farm economy. Teenager Chad would rather be with his friends than with stuffy adults. He is into occasional binge drinking and strains at the boundaries of what he considers his parents’ still conservative lifestyle.
His older sister Caroline, the novel’s protagonist, has come to the occasion with intense struggles about what do with her life. Her goal is to become a vegetable farmer in an ecologically friendly way, not a teacher like her parents think she should be. She would like to be for something, rather than against it. But a female farmer? Out of the question.
The oldest living member of the family, although in no sense the reigning matriarch, is the gentle, soft-spoken, widowed Martha, who lives in the shadows of other people’s lives. She grew up in a rigid church culture, where laws and judgment were emphasized and punishment open and heavy-handed when a member swerved from the expected path.
In her dim memory is a birth that came too soon and that troubled relationships thereafter. In her more recent memory is a death that happened out of sequence.
Despite her identity as a conservative Mennonite who still wears a covering “with strings” to church, Martha has made peace with legalism. She reflects that “I could only reach God through a man, wearing an outward sign” — the covering — of his dominance over her. But now she can wear the covering or not wear it. “The fences you try to put around others only limit you,” she observes.
Of all the guests at the table, she has learned to accept ambiguity and the mystery of uncertainties. Life is not black and white. A lot of what some people think is important doesn’t matter. While hostess Charlotte is upset because an unexpected guest from a shelter disturbs her elaborate table arrangements, Martha reaches out to the retired war veteran quick to speak up for the importance of military action. She accepts him and his views without judgment, with grace.
She is the gentle character who balances out the flaws in the other family members while acknowledging her own need for forgiveness. Hers is the tender voice asking for grace and mercy rather than judgment for perceived sins. She knows the damage harsh judgment can do to a soul.
She has worked out what really counts in life. She has learned forgiveness is more needed than a big meal. She knows a family can’t provide everything a person needs. Sometimes a need is only met by the grace of God. “There’s never enough grace in this world of woe,” never enough forgiveness in the church or the family.
Especially through the interaction of the elderly Martha and her ambitious granddaughter Caroline, the novel lays bare what a family hangs onto and what it discards when modernity encroaches and adjustment is necessary. What is essential to faith? Which customs and values are worth the destruction of relationships?
Evie Yoder Miller is also the author of an earlier novel, Eyes at the Window.
Katie Funk Wiebe, a Wichita, Kan., author, blogs at kfwiebe.blogspot.com.