THE SOUND OF SLEIGH BELLS is Cindy Woodsmall’s latest work, a story about a tentative friendship that begins between a talented young carpenter and a spirited-yet-distant Amish maiden. The possibility of courtship between the two is endangered by past traumas as well as a lie by a well-meaning relative. In this sweet and engaging Christmas story, a fragile courtship uncovers the quiet strength of the enduring (and largely hidden) culture of the Amish people.
Beth Hertzler is a 26-year-old Amish woman who works in her family’s mercantile store, providing Amish products to Englischers (outsiders). Her position is a rare one within the community as she is the Amish middleman for Englischer stores. The loss of her fiancé the year before singles her out as well, an event that left her deeply scarred. The details of that accident Beth has long kept secret from everyone, and, since then, she has convinced herself that she bears some guilt for what happened. She has become withdrawn and disinterested in the idea of marriage, but her family is concerned about her and her diminishing prospects for the future.
For the Amish, a 26-year-old woman is quickly passing her prime years for marriage. At 38, Beth’s Aunt Lizzy knows this all too well as she has been a spinster herself for years. She knows that Beth will soon be forced to separate herself from the town's singles, and she wants a better life for her niece than she has had. With this in mind, Lizzy continually pushes Beth to consider courtships, but Beth remains remote, closing herself off to the notion of marriage.
A young man named Jonah Kinsinger seems to change Beth’s feelings one day while she is away on a business trip in a neighboring Pennsylvania town. On the streets, she encounters an intriguing young man, simply staring at him and not even asking his name. Before Jonah can really talk to her, Beth runs off, and the encounter is over. But upon her return, Lizzy sees a change in Beth and recognizes its significance. Lizzy sets off later to find the workshop of the young man Beth met, and when Lizzy speaks to him, she realizes instantly that he’s the one Beth was interested in. With the girl’s best interests at heart and knowing that Beth would never pursue him on her own, Lizzy concocts a plan to get the two together.
One lie by Lizzy starts the process of Jonah writing to Beth. The two correspond regularly at a distance and, in time, become quite close. The situation lasts until a day when Beth decides to use her business contacts as an excuse to meet Jonah in person. Under the misconception that she has never met him before, Beth soon discovers the truth, and her embarrassment shuts down any chance at courtship. The only possibility of a future relationship depends on both Beth and Jonah being willing and able to begin the healing process for their old wounds, but it may take an act of God to make that happen.
Before reading THE SOUND OF SLEIGH BELLS, I knew little about the Amish as a people, only that they are a reclusive Christian sect whose every way of life centers on their spirituality and preserving “the old ways.” While those perceptions were proved true upon reading this book, I discovered numerous other subtleties to the Amish lifestyle. They are portrayed as an exceptionally creative, soft-hearted and well-disciplined people whose communications are so respectful and restrained that outsiders might miss their significance entirely. And while their isolationist conventions seem to be overly strict to outsiders, they appear vital to preserving their privacy and way of life. The Amish also look at family differently than do mainstream Americans, as their unique bonds are based upon a greater family unit. These are people who spend each and every day helping each other in any way they can, and their dedication to each other and to their own self-reliance is admirable.
Though the ways of the Amish do sometimes seem outdated and severe, I find their total lack of an expansionist philosophy to be absolutely extraordinary. While the delicate courtship that forms the subject of this novel is romantic in itself, I felt the way of life of the Amish people was equally engaging.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on October 6, 2009