You will have heard the old joke about the guy who is on the roof of his house during a flood or hurricane, and his neighbour comes along in a rowboat to rescue him. ‘No, God will rescue me,’ the man says. Next come a crew in a speedboat, but again he says ‘No, God will rescue me’. Finally a helicopter hovers overhead to winch him up, but he sends that away too. So, the guy drowns, goes to heaven and is really upset. He asks God, “why didn’t you rescue me?”, and God says “I sent a rowboat, a speedboat and a helicopter – what were you waiting for?”. The first part of joke forms the basis for the plot of this novel (well, you can hardly kill off the hero!).
A Stranger's Giftbegins with Hester Detweiler working with the Mennonite Central Committee, a national disaster relief organisation, to prepare for Hurricane Hester, which is due to hit her hometown of Pinecraft, Florida. Hester is the local MCC leader, a role that causes some consternation among the more conservative members of the Mennonite congregation her father pastors. They believe that a woman of her age should be channelling her energies into a husband and children, but Hester, at 33, shows no signs of marring (even though there are whispers that her father expects her to marry Samuel Brubaker, the new carpenter he has recently hired).
John Steiner has been banned from his Amish community because he wants to experiment with self-sufficient living in the style of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. He has spent the last two years working alone on his property near Pinecraft, repairing and restoring it, and has no intention of leaving despite the impending arrival of Hurricane Hester.
Although the Amish and the Mennonite faiths are linked by a common Anabaptist heritage, plain dress and a simple, separatist lifestyle, the differences are clear. Hester, a trained nurse, has a college education whereas most Amish leave school when they reach thirteen. The Mennonites also appear to interact much more with the outside community, as evidenced by Hester’s voluntary work for an aid charity. However, Hester is still frustrated by the weight of expectation upon her, to fulfil her place in “a community where sameness was not only preferred by also expected”, when her personal longing was for “something beyond the norm”. John has his own frustrations and an overwhelming sense of guilt that he must overcome. As John and Hester get to know each other, they find that perhaps they can work together for the good of others.
A Stranger's Gift is not at all preachy. Obviously, when a novel is based on the lives of a very conservative Christian denomination there is going to be some religious or spiritual content, but it is not overwhelming or out of place. It is a story of two individuals who don’t quite fit in with the way they were raised, and who individually and together come to realise (and convince those around them) that God can work though many different types of people. Overall, this was a very enjoyable novel and I would certainly read more from Anna Schmidt. The second novel in The Women of Pinecraft series, A Sister’s Forgiveness, is due to be published in May 2012.