Confession: when I was a teen, I loved stories of the Amish and Mennonite. At the stage of not quite feeling daring enough to read the spicier stuff out there, I enjoyed the difficult choices the protagonists made as they had to weigh their personal choices against the strong ties of family expectations. In time, I wandered away from those books, but Kim Vogel Sawyer’s Where the Heart Leads was a bit of a reminiscent reading experience.
The tale follows Thomas Ollenburger, a young man raised as a Mennonite in 1904 Hillsboro, Kansas, but just finishing college in Boston. Like many college graduates, he faces the difficult decisions of finding a job and figuring out What Comes Next. Post-graduation, he returns to the family home, where he is happy to see his father, stepmother, and younger siblings again, but he’s also not quite happy there as he has job and political prospects in Boston. Not only is he torn between Kansas and Massachusetts, but of course, there are girls involved as well: Boston is the home of the lovely, flirtatious Daphne, but Kansas boasts the charms of Belinda, the literal girl next door who grew from a bitter girl to a lovely young woman tempered by loss and saved by God. Choices, choices.
I have to admit, I thought I had this story’s plot completely figured out, but it still managed some surprising turns and developments. The post-graduation angst and Thomas’s wondering if he would be able to find a job are definitely identifiable for a lot of twenty-somethings, and even moving back home and dealing with family expectations are increasingly par for the course anymore. Some things haven’t changed that much between 1904 and 2014, apparently. Readers interested in Sawyer’s writing may want to read Waiting for Summer’s Return first, though, as Where the Heart Leads is a sequel that may spoil some of the former’s plot developments.
Some aspects of the writing were a bit weak. As with The Walk, I found some of the dialogue stilted, particularly Thomas’s father’s second-language English. Characterizations are a little thin, but they do get somewhat more nuanced as the story and characters develop; one poignant moment is when Thomas is discussing his wanting to take a job in Boston with Belinda but is afraid to disappoint his father…only to realize too late that his father overheard and is upset to be perceived as holding his son back. Ouch. The religious aspects of the story will also either attract or repel readers as characters look to God to guide their hearts and actions, but for this book’s target demographic, that is likely to be an appeal.