Home School Book Review
, September 28, 2015
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It is 1874, and twelve year old Paul Wipf lives with his parents in the German Hutterite village of Hutterdorf on the steppes of Russia. Unlike most Hutterites, the Wipf family doesn’t reside in the commune but on their own farm. Many Hutterites, including his mother’s sister and brother-in-law Sannah and Andreas, are migrating to America, but Paul’s parents have decided to stay in Russia. However, Paul is enchanted by dreams of America and even prays that God will allow him to go there too. Then his parents are killed by lightning, and since Paul is now in the care of Sannah and Andreas, he is going to America after all. Yet he is consumed with the feeling of guilt that God’s answer to his prayer caused their deaths. At their funeral, he meets a girl named Hannah Stahl who is also going to America with her family, and they become friends. She is from the nearby Hutterite village of Sheromet where his aunt and uncle also live and seems to have a secret of her own.
Paul’s sour old aunt seems very harsh and unloving, and he is always getting in trouble with her. Hannah keeps telling him to trust in God, but he feels that God is angry with him because of his prayer. His plan is to run away as soon as he can find the chance. As he travels through Russia and Germany on the train with the ever present threat of kidnappers and thieves, sails on the ship Hammonia where he experiences a dangerous storm at sea, and lands in America only to be plagued by a case of dysentery, will Paul even survive? Will he abandon Hannah and the Hutterites, and run to the wild life of the American west? Or will he ever find peace, and if so, how? And what is Hannah’s secret? Author Hugh Alan Smith lives in rural Alberta, Canada, where he has taught in a Hutterite colony school. His extensive research and firsthand knowledge of Hutterites give authenticity to this novel. It is a very engaging story. Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are mentioned briefly. Paul contemplates suicide at one point, and is accused of “indecent behavior” with Hannah a couple of times. There is a reference to “cussing,” but no actual curse words are used. That may not sound good to some, but it is generally wholesome.
While the majority of characters are purely fictional, there are a few historical figures woven into the plot, including Wild Bill Hickock, and it is fairly accurate as to time, place, and major events. Thus, not only does the book provide a good picture of immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth century, but it also gives an interesting look at the Hutterites, a lesser-known branch of the Anabaptists which is in many ways similar to the more familiar Mennonites and Amish. Above all, however, it is a warm, charming story that illustrates the need for seeking God’s love and finding forgiveness. A sequel, When the River Calls: Crossings of Promise #5, also by Hugh Alan Smith, takes place six years after the Hutterites arrived in South Dakota from the Russian steppes, when Hannah thinks her relationship with Paul is deepening, until he abandons the colony, disappearing somewhere up the Missouri River. Other books in the series, Calm Before the Storm, Eye of the Storm, Out of the Storm, Keeper of Hearts, and The Cost of Passage, are by different authors about other times, places, and characters.