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A World Away review

You’ll see the world through fresh eyes in this delicately written coming of age novel about an Amish girl who leaves home for the first time…

A World Away by Nancy Grossman

July 2012 by Hyperion Books (US)

Book jacket blurb:

A summer of firsts…

Sixteen-year-old Eliza Miller has never made a phone call, never tried on a pair of jeans, never sat in a darkened room waiting for a movie to start. She’s never even talked to someone her age who isn’t Amish, like her.

When she leaves her close-knit family to spend the summer as a nanny in a suburb of Chicago, a part of her can’t wait to leave behind everything she knows. She can’t imagine the secrets she will uncover, the friends she will make, the surprises and temptations of a way of life so different from her own.

Every minute Eliza spends with her new friend Josh feels as good as listening to music for the first time, and she wonders whether there might be a place for her in his world. But as summer wanes, she misses the people she has left behind and the Plain life she once took for granted. Eliza will have to decide for herself where she belongs. Whichever choice she makes, she knows she will lose someone she loves.

I’ve been reading a lot of action-driven novels lately, so it was a nice change to get stuck into something more subtly crafted. And the unique perspective of Eliza, the central character of A World Away, made it an utterly absorbing read.

The book opens with Eliza and her mother preparing for a dinner in their Amish home in Ohio. Dressed in simple linen dresses and white bonnets, they serve a rustic home-cooked meal of roast chicken and apple pie with hand-pumped water, in their dining room lit by oil lanterns – all in keeping with the traditional Amish ‘plain’ way of living that rejects modern technology. The dinner guests are all ‘English’ (the Amish term for non-Amish people) who are curious to learn about their hosts’ way of life. But it’s not only the guests who are curious: Eliza is just as intrigued by them and their ‘fancy’ ways, particularly the two teenaged girls who wear bright colours on their eyes and spend the evening tapping on their phones.

It’s an important time in Eliza’s life – aged sixteen she has reached the time for her rumspringa, when Amish teenagers are allowed a summer of ‘running wild’ and to sample the many forbidden treats of the outside world before making a decision whether to be baptised and to take the vow to renounce that world forever. Eliza is eager to get away, but first she has to persuade her conservative parents.

At the start of the book the writing itself seems ‘plain’, but as the story takes shape many layers are added, like the complementary and contrasting colours of a traditional Amish quilt slowly being stitched together. Having convinced her parents to allow her to spend the summer working as a nanny in the home of Mrs Aster, a guest who attends one of her mother’s weekly dinners, Eliza sets off into the ‘real’ world. From that moment every page is filled with the thrill of new experiences as Eliza rides in a car, listens to music, watches a movie and does for the very first time many things most of us take for granted. I loved the way it gives you a fresh look at the world, and the author has a knack for pinpointing mundane events that become extraordinary seen through Eliza’s unworldly eyes. I particularly liked the moment when Eliza stands beneath overhead tracks as a train rumbles past: ‘This extraordinary event that took away sound and breath and light – this incredible shaking moment happens every five minutes. It didn’t seem possible.’

Predictably, once let loose in the real world with its relaxed social rules Eliza meets a boy, named Josh. They hang out, he introduces her to music, and in a touching and quite innocent way something more soon begins to blossom. Nagging at the back of Eliza’s mind is the fact that at the end of the summer she will have to decide whether to return home, or leave her family forever to live in the real world. Her relationship with Josh, of course, figures heavily in her final decision, but she isn’t completely swept off course by romance – she’s very much aware of making a choice that’s right for her. And I won’t spoil any surprises, but there are a few other factors she encounters in the ‘English’ world that give her even more reason to want to stay. By the end of the book, through making her own mistakes Eliza has realised that things aren’t as black and white as they may first seem, and has developed into someone who is capable of making the life-changing decision she first set out to address.

There is so much to discover in this book. I was first drawn to it because of the Amish theme – I knew next to nothing about this group of people, and Nancy Grossman, who lives in Chicago and has had dinner with an Amish family herself, gives a real insight into their way of life. But the book also explores universal themes that anyone Eliza’s age will be familiar with – figuring out who you are and where you fit into the world, feeling like the odd one out amongst your peers, outward appearances and how they reflect or hide your personality, the value of true friendship, and that tricky business of readjusting your relationship with your mother as you become an adult. It’s a thought-provoking read with a heart-warming message at its centre – that you can manage without material things, but not without the people you love.

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  1. I always have to balance my action reading with a bit of rites-of-passage reading! I’m intrigued by the whole Amish thing – makes you realise what you take for granted living in the developed world. Sounds like the author really explores the sense of discovery. Definitely keen to read this.

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