David A. Sprunger is chair of the English Department and Associate Professor of English and Discourse at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Although Evie Yoder Miller's Eyes at the Window (EAW) is an engaging story about the murder of a baby and the fifty-one years it takes for the murderer to be revealed, it is not a mystery novel in any conventional sense because the plot does not focus on an attempt to solve the murder. The murderer's identity is easy to guess, yet his first-person narration doesn't overtly mention the murder until the novel is almost over. Instead of concentrating on the murder, this novel provides instead a rich psychological drama about the long-term effect of blame, suspicion, and ultimate forgiveness. The precipitating factor for this drama is the baby's death, but it could have as easily been a barn burning or other transgression against the community.
Apart from its engaging story, much of the novel's success stems from the risks it takes in presenting the plot. As recounted elsewhere in this issue of Mennonite Life, Yoder Miller builds her novel on historical record, which somewhat limits the liberties she could have taken with the plot. Yet, she demonstrates great liberty in the story telling, particularly in a sophisticated narrative strategy of telling a story that spans fifty-one years through the first-person accounts of seven different narrators. The unconventional storytelling may confound initially some readers who are used to a single story line developed by a single narrator, but those readers willing to synthesize the multiple voices and story lines will be rewarded with a story that develops slowly but results in a rich study of human nature and nineteenth-century Amish community.
The purpose of this essay is to assess some of the novel's literary strategies, not to recount the entire plot of the novel nor to spoil a potential reader's pleasure in experiencing the leisurely unfolding of the plot. Yet, in discussing key elements, it is necessary to refer to plot, including the eventual disclosure of the murderer. If you have not yet read the novel and wish the ending to remain a surprise, you may wish to set this essay aside until later.
Literature has always required of its readers what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a "willing suspension of disbelief," but authors of first-person narratives often attempt to minimize the disbelief by presenting narration as some sort of artifact, such as having the narrator keep a journal, write letters, appear to be speaking to someone, or so forth. In such cases, the narrator often demonstrates some self-awareness that he or she is writing.
EAW doesn't present the narratives as people consciously writing or even telling their stories to a particular person, yet the first time the novel switches to a new narrator, each character provides some sort of self-introduction, such as "Jonas Zug is my name" (5) or "I am Eliza, faithful wife of Yost Hershberger" (12) or "My name is Polly Berkey from up the Brothers Valley settlement" (16). The straightforward introductions make the different sections read a bit like depositions, yet it's odd that there seems to be little context for why these seven people are telling their stories.
Texts with multiple narrators can also vary in whether they choose to present each narrator's story from beginning to end or whether to cut back and forth between the different story tellers. EAW uses the latter strategy, switching from one part of the story line to another in order to cover the events from March 1810 to March 1861, a fifty-one year span. Each chapter is titled with the name of the narrator and the month and year in which the chapter takes place.
A further narrative decision concerns how much each character knows of the whole story at any time during the narrative. A narrator might be narrating in retrospect, able to understand (and highlight) the significance of earlier events as they're described. In other cases, each narrative segment represents the narrator's knowledge to that point, so there's no attempt to foreshadow future events. Although the narrative segments of EAW are not framed as letters or journal entries, they have the same narrative effect. Each segment gives a piece of the puzzle, so it's up to individual readers to assemble the emerging narrative.
These narrative dimensions are worth considering because they highlight the choices available to Yoder Miller and give some contrast to alternative directions that EAW might have taken. The cumulative effect of the narrative is a puzzle or - to use a more Amish metaphor - a quilt whose isolated blocks reveal a larger design when viewed from a distance. Readers are introduced to seven characters, each with a unique point of view and who tells a part of the story - as that character knows it to that point of the larger narrative. And thus, we are invited to see how this one death affects the lives of seven people to some degree or another over the fifty-one year span.
The first several chapters are especially fine because of the way seemingly unconnected details reinforce each other and mesh into meaningful patterns in hindsight. For instance, Jonas introduces himself as someone who is clumsy and easily flustered. He is preoccupied with courtship of Polly Berkey, who is in their community helping her sister Eliza Hershberger care for three young children. At the chapter's end, he looks forward to the coming Sunday, when he hopes to pursue his case with Polly.
In the second chapter, Eliza Hershberger, mother of the baby that will be murdered, dwells on eyes of wild animals that watch from the woods and unsettle her life in the wilderness. The eyes haunt her and suggest sinister forces that crowd about their cabin.
The murder occurs in chapter 3, narrated by Polly. The family skips the hymn sing mentioned in chapter 1 to prepare to harvest maple sap as soon as Sabbath ends at midnight. The adults attend to duties in the sugar camp, leaving the children asleep in the cabin, but when they return, Marie, the baby, is discovered smothered to death between two mattresses of her parents' bed.
In the aftermath of discovering the baby's corpse, Polly notices a face peering in the window (24). She associates the face - because of its eyes - with a face she had seen the previous evening when she had stayed home from the young person's hymn sing. The detail of the eyes echoes a comment she made earlier when thinking about Jonas's courtship: "His green eyes have too much of the cat in them. I wonder if he might decide to pounce of a sudden" (19).
These examples are not inclusive but representative of the interweaving of details that seem random at first but come together in hindsight to show a meaningful pattern. The delivery of the details and clues through the different narrative voices requires readers to synthesize the material and become involved in making larger meaning of the different characters' different stories.
Another challenge for an author of a multiple narrator novel is keeping each narrative voice distinct from the others. Yoder Miller's differentiation of the narrative voices is done less with distinctive syntax or vocabulary than with unique points of view. As a result, some readers may feel that the voices sound somewhat the same. It would be difficult to open the book at random, read a sentence or two, and be able to tell from the style which character is speaking.
The murderer Jonas Zug is the first voice in the novel, and he opens with self-deprecation about his proverbial abilities to "put a bridle crosswise on a horse," "trip on a rock hiding in the weeds," "lurch when I should stand upright," and having "bumbled away my chance at a girl" (5). He also describes himself as someone who - albeit metaphorically - skulks around: "I lurk behind every tree before I come to the clearing" (8), a description that ties him to the "eyes" of the title and of chapter 3. As he exits the book, fifty-one years later, Jonas is still faulting himself as "schmutzfink" (474) and "schmutzig" (479) and a "creature to be despised" (480).
Another successful example of differentiating characters by their points of view is Franey, the younger sister of Jonas Zug. When she first introduces herself, she's ten, and her perspective is that of a ten year old. When she thinks about how important people in her life are migrating westward from the community in Pennsylvania to Ohio, she thinks of details like their hats: "When we have church, I still look for Levi's hat. His has a wider brim like they wear in Mifflin County. All the other men have hats from here, with the rounded crowns pointing out. Each hat makes a wheel and Levi's has rolled out the door. I like the way the hats sit on pegs, lined up in exact rows, even if one is missing" (196). When we last hear from Franey, 35 years have passed, but she still takes pleasure in noticing small details, such as reporting the color of zinnias, daisies, mums, and feeling "the dampness of grass and earth on my bare feet" (403).
Of the seven story tellers and their stories, the one who spends more time mulling over the murder is Reuben Hershberger, the murdered baby's uncle, who is accused of the murder and must suffer fifty years of accusation, shunning, and exclusion. The novel is very successful at showing how Reuben and Anna, his long-suffering wife, shoulder the burden of the false accusation. The way he bears his exclusion and how he reacts after the true murderer confesses is moving and not easily forgotten.
Perhaps because of limitations from historical material but I like to think from deliberate choice, Yoder Miller avoids the temptation to have a simplistic ending with all loose ends tied up and a big group hug punctuated by platitudes of forgiveness. Instead, the novel closes with its focus on Reuben who has accepted his reintegration into the community but who has been so scarred by fifty years of exclusion that he can only shrug at events and commit only "to tend the soil I have been given" as he awaits reunion with Anna in heaven (510).
Finally, EAW deserves acclaim for taking risks in the historical novel genre. A persistent challenge for authors of the historical novel is how to best incorporate their research materials. Some novels self-consciously call attention to historical difference (e.g., "You may not know that in the olden days . . ."). Others are less obvious but include historical details for the sake of creating historical atmosphere rather than driving plot.
Margaret Frazer, author of the Sister Frevisse medieval mysteries, recently addressed this dilemma: "There must be details enough to move the reader into the place and time without gratuitous minutiae-details thrown in just because the author knows them."(1) Frazer calls for balance, and Yoder Miller has achieved such balance. Details of nineteenth-century Amish life are definitely present, and their presence rewards readers who can learn much about the furnishing of cabins, the rigors of travel between Pennsylvania and Ohio, and social issues that challenged the Amish community. Yet, these details are integral to plot and character development.
One way that Yoder Miller avoids the baroque overloading historical details or - worse - tedious explication of historical details is through judicious use of appendices. By shifting important explanatory and contextual information to an appendix, she is able to concentrate the novel on telling a story and developing characters. Resources include a map of the different Pennsylvania and Ohio Amish settlements that figure in the novel; family trees; a glossary of German and Pennsylvania Dutch terms; low German texts of the Lord's Prayer and some folk poems, snippets of which are included at points in the novel. A reader can decide to pursue this "gratuitous minutiae" separately from the novel, or the reader can concentrate on the novel's body.
Historical novels are a special pleasure. At best, they allow readers to enjoy the plot and character development of a novel while simultaneously transporting readers to a different time and place. At worst, the historical romance hammers away at the reader, boasting its historical details. Fortunately, EAW is definitely of the former sort. Readers are challenged to participate in synthesizing multiple stories and points of view while indirectly reconstructing an ethnographic portrait of nineteenth-century Amish life. Readers learn history without even trying. And, yet despite these skillful flourishes, the novel keeps its focus on story and character. This balance is no small achievement and produces one of the most satisfying recent contributions to Mennonite literature.
1. Margaret Frazer, "How Medieval Can You Be in a Medieval Mystery Novel?" Medieval Academy News, Fall 2005: 10.
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