The relationships between fathers and sons are the backbone of LEVI'S WILL, a novel that explores themes of forgiveness and rejection by rising Christian fiction star W. Dale Cramer. The title is clever --- a play on the name of Amish farmer Levi Mullet's son, Will; an allusion to Levi's stubbornness; and a nod toward the legacies that fathers leave their sons.
The protagonist of Cramer's novel is Will Mullet, a 19-year-old Amish teen who is in desperate trouble. His girlfriend of sorts is pregnant, and rather than tying the knot, he elects to run away from Apple Creek, Ohio, and enlist in the military (another no-no in his pacifist community). The story bounces back and forth between the 1980s and four decades before, as we listen to Will's musings as a 60-year-old, then follow his life leading up to that point.
The prose is often beautiful, as one would expect from Cramer's earlier books, SUTTER'S CROSS and BAD GROUND (named one of Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal's top books for 2004). However, rather than fleshing out one location, as he did so well in both earlier books, Cramer ambitiously attempts to follow Will across the globe, placing him in Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Belgium, and other places. For readers who appreciated Cramer's ability to develop a sense of "place," this fragmentation --- along with the switching back and forth between time periods --- will feel a bit disappointing. (The community of Apple Creek would seem to lend itself to lots of introspection.) James Michener did a better job fleshing out the Amish community in CENTENNIAL, which included as one of its many subplots Pennsylvania Dutch boy Levi Zendt's abrupt departure from his Amish home for the settling of the West. Granted, however, Michener took 900 pages to do so.
What Cramer does with excellence is unfold relationships between generations and between friends, which ring with authenticity. When Will heads for Atlanta to find work with an old military friend, Jubal Barefoot, Cramer's writing lightly skims some of the strong themes of Bad Ground --- construction projects, the maturing of a man through difficult circumstances, and the forging of relationships between men bound by hard labor.
But the central relationship is between Will and his father Levi, a difficult, stubborn, strong-willed man who considers the shunning of Will for a lifetime a virtue rather than a sin. This exemplifies one of the central themes of the book: our sin, the power of forgiveness, and the bitterness of forgiveness withheld. Will carries his own load of sin: the guilt of abandoning the pregnant Amish girl, Mattie, at Apple Creek with him for decades, the despondency over not being a true father to his illegitimate daughter, his belief that he has caused the death of a man, and his grief about his own failures as a parent to his sons.
Perhaps the strongest part of the book is when Cramer concentrates on Will's need for his father, something that no other relationship --- friendship, marriage --- can replace. Will tries to repair the breech about midway through the book, returning home and facing his father at dusk. Surprised by Will's appearance after so many years, Levi lights a kitchen match and examines his son's face by its dim light. In one of the book's most poignant scenes, Levi rejects Will and storms back to the house. Later in his life, with the breech still unrepaired, Will builds a small fire and Cramer, the narrator, reflects, "Even then, a thousand miles and a thousand light years away from Levi Mullet, sometimes Will gazed into the fire and saw before his face the flame of a single match flickering in the breath of his father's condemnation. Even then, some small part of him understood that it was no slavish ambition that drove him to work so hard, but a deep and festering need to prove something."
Eventually, Will faces his own culpability --- his rejection of Mattie and his daughter, his own shortcomings in his marriage, and his failures in parenting his own sons. The sins of the fathers reverberate through generations. Despite the tense relationship themes, this is a quiet novel, thought-provoking rather than a page-turner. Readers will come away with a new appreciation for the power of forgiveness, the need for reconciliation in relationships, and the cost of repeating the same mistakes through generations.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011