Rating: 4.75 stars
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Eighteen-year-old Isaac Byler lives a sheltered life in a very conservative Amish community in Minnesota. He knows little of the larger world, especially since his family moved to Zebulon from their more open community in Ohio. Everything about life in Zebulon is focused on living a plain life in service to God as dictated by the religious leaders. Isaac knows he is expected to join the church, find a wife, and live his life according to the strict dictates of the community. But that is a future Isaac can hardly imagine for himself.
When Isaac takes a job as a carpentry apprentice with David Lantz, he is excited but wary. Isaac has no interest in farming, and carpentry is one of the few jobs open to him. He has always loved woodworking, so this could be perfect — except for the feelings he has for David. He knows they are a sin, and does his best to hide them. But long days working alongside David just make his feelings grow stronger. As it turns out, David shares his interest, leading to the terrifying but wonderful exploration of love and sex between them.
Both men have lost brothers to the lure of the outside world, and both saw the pain this brought their families. They know that they must do as expected and adhere to the strict guidelines of the community. But their feelings for each other and their curiosity about the outside world mean that staying in Zebulon is unimaginable. No one can know they are gay and there is clearly no hope for a future for them there. Isaac and David have finally found love and dream of a future together. Now they must decide if they can make the choices needed to build their lives together.
Oh, this was really such a wonderful story, I loved every minute of it. Andrews gives us a window into Isaac and David’s world that really illuminates the Amish community in which they live. The research and time she put into this are evident, and there are great details about daily life and their religious beliefs that make it all come alive and feel grounded in reality. Andrews really succeeds here giving us a nice balance between respecting the Amish beliefs and highlighting the conflicts for these young men. On one hand, it is clear that this is a warm community and that their families love and care for them. Most of the people in Zebulon have strong religious beliefs, and despite the intensity, no one is interested in forcing or converting anyone outside of their community. At the same time, this is one of the most conservative branches of Amish observance, and the rules are incredibly strict. Everything from the width of a hat brim to the height of a buggy are determined by religious guidelines. While some Amish communities interact with the English (non-Amish) and have some contact with the outside world, Zebulon is almost totally isolated and insular. Some communities also practice rumspringa, a time when young adults can venture out in the world to explore before officially joining the church, however that is not allowed in Zebulon. After some kids got out of control and it lead to disaster, things have become even more strict. So the youngies (late teens and young adults) must make their commitment to the church never having really explored or learning about what else is out there in the world.
We can really feel both the terror and the exhilaration as David and Isaac explore their feelings for one another. Not just the sex, which is both lovely and hot, but also the emotional feelings. They know their homosexuality is a sin and they know there is no place for a future between them in Zebulon. But both of their brothers were lost to the outside world, and the idea of leaving themselves seems virtually impossible. Isaac can not imagine breaking his family’s heart or never seeing them again. For David, it is even harder, as he is the sole provider for his mother and sisters. At the same time, neither man can imagine getting married and joining the church, even though they don’t see any choice. It is heart-wrenching to see these men who are so in love realizing they are also totally stuck with no options they can see for their future. Andrews captures that hope and pain so well, and both David and Isaac are such lovely characters.
I really adored this story and just have a couple of small issues. First, when the guys get together, David has already had some exposure to the outside world, something he is hiding from everyone. He is the more open of the two, guiding Isaac along as they explore both their romantic/sexual connection, as well as the world outside Zebulon. But I never really understood how David got to that place, how he took those first steps toward minor rebellion. We know he met someone outside Zebulon during an emergency, but I never really understood how it went from there to the place where we see him as the story starts. It would have been a tremendous leap for him, and I’d like to understand it better. Second, and this is tiny, but you kind of have to suspend your disbelief a little bit as these guys get together. Given they have zero education about sex beyond looking at a dirty magazine (and certainly none about gay sex), their inherent understanding about lube, stretching, and the prostate seemed unlikely. But again, that is just small issue and worth it for the steamy scenes between them.
So this was just a warm and wonderful story that really tugged at my heart. This is a book that really stayed with me, long after I finished. I loved David and Isaac and I really enjoyed seeing them explore love, sex, and just a touch of what the world has to offer them. The book has a tiny bit of a lag in the middle, but as things heated up, I couldn’t read fast enough to find out what is in store for these guys. Though the book does have a resolution and a happy ending for Isaac and David, there is another book coming that continues their story. I truly can hardly wait.