In reading and in writing I’ve found the most engaging stories were very personal for the author. That means different things of course. For some it’s about reinventing a personal tale. For others it’s about discovering something brand new. For debut author Jolina Petersheim this means retelling a classic story based on some real life situations, and bringing her Mennonite heritage to new light.
Please welcome Jolina Petersheim to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Retelling A Classic Story, Rebuilding A Foundation, And Focusing On Redemption
by Jolina Petersheim
When I sent my debut novel The Outcast out to gather endorsements, New York Times bestselling author Julie Cantrell replied that my story was riveting, but she had one question:
You said you’re Mennonite, so I have to ask . . . is it really like this? I struggled so much with the role of women in this community. I’m curious to know if it’s like that today.
I had to tell her that, in the most conservative Old Order sects, it is still like that today.
Though I’m Mennonite only by heritage, my entire life I’ve come into contact with the Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities. My family moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when I was three years old, but my transplanted childhood remained firmly attached to our Mennonite roots. I believe my parents found solace in finding a community that reminded us that, though we were fourteen hours away from home, we were not alone in this foreign Tennessee land.
The Outcast’s fictional story, a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter set in an Old Order Mennonite community in Tennessee, is not based on any event that transpired in this community we used to visit when I was child. However, I saw enough heartache there to know that the Gentle People struggle with the fallibility of man as much as the Englisch. I will not go into details to protect the innocent party, but the family we used to visit was fatherless. He was not allowed to step foot on the property, which he couldn’t if he had wanted to. He was in prison.
Have you ever read about an abusive Old Order Mennonite father? Have you ever read about an Older Order Mennonite woman who commits adultery?
I am sure that you have not. Or if those Amish fiction books exist, they are rare. Because of this, I did not know if I had the courage to place my heritage in such a light. Could I reveal that the horse and buggy communities—that capture Englischers’ interest around the globe as the last standing Utopia—are sometimes composed of smoke screens and mirrors? That we are not the only ones who put up a façade?
The catalyst that gave me strength to tell The Outcast’s story was when another story was told to me about the power of desire and the reverberating cost after that desire was left unchecked. It was a story that, shockingly enough, took place in an idyllic Old Order Mennonite community.
The repercussions from this tragic affair trickled down through the generations until one woman stood up against the curse and sought repentance and healing. This woman’s bravery brought much redemption; I like to believe the family is still being redeemed today.
I never imagined my debut novel would tap into my Mennonite heritage. However, this true story showed me there was not only the potential to put a different spin on a popular genre, but a need to reveal how difficult it is for an Old Order Mennonite woman, Rachel Stoltzfus, to provide for herself and her illegitimate child after being exiled from the community’s fold.
Through The Outcast, Rachel – the modern Hester Prynne character – is able to find employment and room and board with a brash ex-Amish woman named Ida Mae. When Rachel’s son’s illness conjures forth her past, she has enough distance from the community to understand the scarring she went through as a child, which led her to the point she would risk everything just to see herself reflected in another man’s eyes.
Because of this unusually dark subject matter, I did not know how The Outcast would be accepted by the Plain community. Mere days after its July 1 release, I received this message from a reader who was once part of the Amish church:
I remember the intense attraction the other church people had about this girl who was shunned. They wanted to hear about her sins, and her shortcomings. They would gasp in shock at the terrible things she was supposedly doing. I would sometimes look at her, in her eyes, and see fierce determination and pride, and yet an almost nauseous look of hurt. She did not defend herself or engage in the gossip. There were a couple of times in reading The Outcast that I felt like I could not breathe for the pain that Rachel was feeling. I think I know now what my friend went through. Your book was so authentic: the German words, Rachel’s loving yet harsh mother. It felt like more than a book to me.
This priceless message and others like them are a testament to the beauty of tearing down a façade and constructing from a new foundation. Through The Outcast, I hope readers will see that our lives do not have to be built around smoke screens and mirrors, but we can reveal our darkest places and let the power of redemption . . . redeem.
Jolina Petersheim holds degrees in English and communication arts from the University of the Cumberlands. Though The Outcast is her first novel, her writing has been featured in venues as varied as radio programs, nonfiction books, and numerous online and print publications. Her website is syndicated with The Tennessean’s “On Nashville” blog roll, as well as featured on other creative writing sites. Jolina and her husband share the same unique Amish and Mennonite heritage that originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but now live in the mountains of Tennessee with their young daughter.