Engrossing Amish Fiction From Another Era
Sabina: A Story of the Amish
by Helen R. Martin
Publication Date: September 14, 2009
Original Publication Date: 1905
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
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This delightful reprint of the classic 1905 edition of Sabina: A Story of the Amish tells the story of a young woman’s coming of age. When Sabina finds herself attracted to an artist boarder who has come from the East to settle into the Pennsylvania Dutch country, her Amish lover seeks justice. Weaved within the story are striking depictions of Amish marriages, funerals, and prayer meetings.
On Throwback Thursday, we take a look at a popular and controversial novel about the Amish published at the turn of the 20th century.
Today’s Amish romantic fiction often portrays a near-pastoral existence for these gentle, spiritual folk. But life — and love — was not necessarily so idyllic, claims Helen Martin, when she was writing about the Amish in 1905.
In Sabina: A Story of the Amish, Martin, a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, paints what feels like a traditional (in light of contemporary criticism of the author’s works, I hesitate to write authentic) portrait of an Amish community. She presents us with a loving family ruled by a stern but fair patriarch, whose daughter wants something more for herself than to be the under-educated, submissive wife of a farmer. The novel is filled with descriptions of Amish life, including interesting details about weddings and funerals, and everyday life in general. Nevertheless, Sabina can be a challenge to read: Its dialogue is flavored with unfamiliar German and Dutch words and phrases, inverted sentence structure, and unusual spellings, as Martin attempts to accurately convey the sense and sound of the Amish language.
The plot is unique and absorbing: Augustus, a pleasant young artist from “the world”, comes to board for a month at an Amish farm. He fascinates attractive 18-year-old Sabina Wilt, and in turn, finds himself intrigued by her meek but winning personality, narrow life views (to her, seeing the world would be a trip to “Phil’delphy”), and apparent psychic ability. It is dangerous territory, for Ulmer Popple, a vain, domineering Amish youth much given to angry words, considers Sabina his property. In a vital and suspenseful subplot, Aaron, Sabina’s older brother, seeks to wed a non-Amisher, whose outraged mother threatens violence on Aaron and the Wilt family should her daughter be swept into the Amish faith.
Though I admit to feeling a bit disgruntled about the final few chapters, and to not being entirely sold on the resolution to Sabina’s psychic seizures, this is a captivating, rewarding read, and our heroine is an engaging, memorable character.
A final word: Googling the author will bring up several articles regarding the controversy surrounding this and her other Amish novels. It is important to bear in mind that in most of them Martin’s voice is smothered by that of her critics. For instance, the main thrust of their complaints is that she depicts Amish men as being overbearing and uneducated. Yet in Sabina, Levi Wilt, who, though with the limited schooling usual for the Amish of the day, is bright enough to have turned his into one of the most prosperous farms in the community, is a kind and loving father and husband. He is strict where he needs to be, but never severe; in fact, he’s almost too lenient where his daughter is concerned. On the other hand, he who would criticize Martin’s treatment of the sect as being biased overlooks the fact that by far the most evil character in this novel is a Lutheran woman — and Martin was Lutheran! Unfortunately, history seldom allows both sides a fair hearing.
— Jennifer Michelle
4.5 of 5 Hearts. Engrossing Amish Fiction From Another Era.
Several of Helen Martin’s works were turned into movies or plays, which speaks well of her talent and popularity. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Sabina: A Story of the Amish is an entertaining novel, written by a hand skilled at turning out likeable, realistic characters. For the reader of today, it is an historical novel, illuminating the Amish world as it existed at the time of its writing at the turn of the 20th century. In comparing it to modern fiction about the Amish, it’s interesting to find how little things have changed in their world, and to wonder how thin the line is between tradition and stagnation. Fans of Amish fiction ought to include at least one of Martin’s books in their reading; Sabina makes an excellent choice.