A young Mennonite girl’s life turns upside down when a painful family secret is revealed in Thomas’ (A Weekend with Frances, 2016, etc.) novel.
Victoria Grace Unruh, born in 1960 to middle-aged parents, is the youngest of four children in a Mennonite family living in Indiana. She barely knows her two older brothers; her older sister, Lucinda, nicknamed “Lucy,” is an unpredictable “red-headed bundle of turbulence.” Her father, Herman, a rural mailman, isn’t very bright but is “everything I ever needed him to be,” says Victoria. His kind, compassionate qualities endear him to all—except his wrathful, rigid wife. Ada, Victoria’s mother, devotes herself to the Mennonite Women’s Fellowship, but at home, she’s sharp-edged and unloving. As Victoria grows up as a Mennonite amid the loosening social strictures of the 1960s, she argues with her mother over boys (Ada believes that all men are loathsome) and sometimes feels the difference between herself and non-Mennonite kids. But her life is mostly pleasant, consisting of church, singing, good grades, and cute boyfriends at her private high school. Her peaceful stability explodes, however, when Lucy develops paranoid schizophrenia. During an angry rant, Lucy tells teenage Victoria a shameful secret, causing the younger girl to re-evaluate all she knows about herself. Although the main story is Victoria’s, Thomas gives the novel depth with flashbacks to the parents’ early lives, courtship, and marriage—an unromantic but moving saga of disappointment and lowered expectations. Herman emerges as a figure of great emotional intelligence whose humble self-criticism (“I’m just an old bumble-head”) is heartbreaking. With self-denying nobility, Herman frames the aforementioned secret in a way that allows Victoria to feel blessed by God. It’s problematic, though, that Victoria is already such a paragon: “You’re a winner. You’re a star….You’re extraordinary,” says Victoria’s best friend, Judy Prentiss; “Everything’s always been so easy for you….You’re so smart and so pretty,” says Lucy. As a result, the suffering of those in Victoria’s orbit is more compelling than her own, as it’s deeper, harder to fix, and more heart-wrenching.
A well-told story, but readers’ sympathy for the central character will wane somewhat due to her abundant good looks, charm, intelligence, and talent.