memoir · nonfiction

A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming- Kerri Rawson

I’m not hugely into true crime, but I’ll pick up a book from that genre now and then. I am interested, however, in unique experiences and the people behind them, and the second I heard about A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming by Kerri Rawson (Thomas Nelson, 2019), I added it to my TBR. Kerri Rawson is the daughter of Dennis Rader, the serial killer known as BTK who terrorized the people of Wichita for seventeen years.

The memoir begins on the day when an FBI agent knocks at Kerri’s door to inform her that her father has been arrested under suspicion of being the serial killer who called himself BTK, short for Bind, Torture, Kill. Between 1974 through 1991, Rader murdered ten people. By the time Kerri was born, her father had already murdered seven of those people (as far as I can calculate, not having the book in front of me). He was a moody man who, Rawson later realized, emotionally abused his family and physically abused Rawson’s brother, but there were many good times together as a family as well, hiking and fishing in both Kansas and vacation destinations such as the Grand Canyon. Her father being a serial killer certainly wasn’t what she expected to learn when she opened the door that day.

The news is almost unbearable to Kerri, who feels a mixture of helplessness, revulsion, anger, panic, grief, and more; there’s no manual on how to deal with news like this, no instructions on how to heal or dodge the public’s accusations that you must’ve known all along or were party to it. Along with developing a terrible case of PTSD, Kerri both clams up about who her father is (no longer living in Kansas and having taken her husband’s last name, anonymity isn’t difficult) and finds what strength she can in her Christian faith. There’s no major breakthrough for her, no moment where suddenly, everything is okay; what Kerri realizes is that her grief and anger and survivor’s guilt will be ongoing, but she can learn to manage it and live alongside it, thanks to therapy, the support of her husband, and her faith.

Ms. Rawson’s PTSD plays a massive part in this book; she constantly relives the agonizing moments in which she learned her father is a serial killer. Her justified anguish over her entire childhood being a lie overflows each page and is at times painful to read, so if you’re not in the mindset to stand there with her and carry some of her pain, maybe wait a little while until you’re ready for this book.

She writes of her father occasionally getting moody and everyone else in the family learning to walk on eggshells until he calmed down; while he absolutely strayed into emotionally abusive territory, I don’t think his behavior was all that uncommon for men of that era who had no outlet for their emotions, no way to discuss how they were feeling, and instead took out their stress and anger on their families. It’s not at all healthy, but not indicative of a serial killer, and Kerri was utterly stunned, as was everyone else in her family, to find out that the man who had taken her camping and always checked to make sure her car was safe had orphaned a few children and murdered others.

Books published by Thomas Nelson tend to vary wildly on how heavily Christian their content is, and this is one of their heavier books. Kerri attended church as a young girl, but didn’t truly become serious about her faith until a nearly disastrous hiking trip to the Grand Canyon. It helps to pull her through some extremely dark times after the news breaks about her father, but in terms of this book, the amount of real estate that it takes up in the pages bogs the book down more than a bit. I wasn’t in love with the writing style to begin with, and while I’m glad Ms. Rawson’s faith carried her through such a life-shattering tragedy, I felt there was too much repetition of similar content when it came to her beliefs.

I found it intriguing that she does come to forgive her father for what he did to her and her family. I understand that her faith helped her come to that decision, and that she did it in order to move on with her life (while she does occasionally write to her father, she no longer speaks to him and does not visit him in prison). I…am honestly not sure I could have done that; that may make her a better person than me, and I’m okay with that! I’m glad she’s found what she needed to move forward; I assume that whatever that is would be different for everyone, and there’s no simple solution to how to live with this kind of knowledge about a parent or close family member.

If you’re looking for insight on serial killers in general or on Dennis Rader, this probably isn’t the book you’re looking for. I didn’t feel as though it offered anything of particular interest in those areas, but it does highlight the struggle that family members go through when one of their own turns out to be a monster. While Ms. Rawson wasn’t the kind of victim most people think of when they hear the words ‘serial killer,’ she and family absolutely are victims of his behavior; their trauma deserves to be heard as well. My heart goes out to them, and to the families of the people Dennis Rader murdered. May they all find peace and healing.

Visit Kerri Rawson’s Facebook page here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Their Pretend Amish Courtship- Patricia Davids

Category romance isn’t my normal speed when it comes to romance. I’m much more into contemporary romance, single titles, and stories that go beyond what category can offer (but if category is your thing, that’s cool too! Tomato, tomahto, and all that; I’m a huge fan of Brussels sprouts, which aren’t everyone’s thing either. Takes all kinds). But while we were on vacation, I was browsing the paperbacks for sale at the Branson Walmart and came across a copy of Amish Covert Operation. Yes, that’s a real book (and it’s pretty highly rated!). Category romance has some seriously amazing titles, and I knew that when I came home, I wanted to seek out and read something with a title like that. And that, friends, is how I picked up a copy of Their Pretend Amish Courtship by Patricia Davids (2017, Love Inspired).

At twenty-two, Fannie is practically an old maid by Amish standards. All she wants is to spend her life working with horses instead of keeping house for some random man, but her parents are really starting to worry that she hasn’t settled down yet. With her sister being newly engaged, Fannie’s on the cusp of being shipped off to Florida to help her aging grandparents, ruining the plans she has to help save a friend’s business with a horse show. But with the help of next-door-neighbor Noah, who’s also unmarried and Amish and wants nothing more than to see if he has a shot at playing professional baseball, things just might work out. A fake courtship will help both of them: Fannie’s sister will go off to Florida (what she really wants!), Fannie will stay home in order to spend more time with her new beau (and those horses!), and Noah will get to spend the summer playing baseball and learning if he has what it takes to go pro. Everything will be just fine.

But of course it isn’t. Things with the horses grow more and more complicated, Noah can’t make up his mind about playing ball or giving it up forever and joining the church, and Noah and Fannie bicker like no one’s business whenever they’re within half a mile of each other. What’s worse, their families are so excited about the possibility of the two of them marrying that they start to feel terrible about their lies and deception. It’ll take- of course- a near-tragedy for things to come to a head, but everything will of course work out, Amish-style.

Oof. Cheese-fest with a religious twist right here! Fannie and Noah’s constant bickering was juvenile and irritating; there were a few times I had to reread their conversations because I wasn’t sure if they were actually being serious with the taunts and barbs they were exchanging- no one actually fights like that, do they? The language they used was as immature as they were, to be sure, but their dialogue made me roll my eyes a few times as well. I couldn’t really buy them as a couple or feel any kind of attraction between them, despite the author constantly referring to their history as childhood friends.

The faith-based aspects of the book were more than a little heavy-handed. Obviously, reading a book about the Amish is bound to contain some of that, and that’s fine, but it didn’t occur to me until later on that this was published by Harlequin’s inspirational romance line, and those do tend to be heavier on the religious messages (another reviewer on Goodreads rightly points out that Amish romances are written not by the Amish themselves, but mainly by evangelical Christians. I’ve read interviews with Amish women who refer to these books as, basically, nonsense, which is interesting). I’ve read single title inspirational romances in the past that worked well (Always the Baker, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker really shines here; nowhere does it feel preachy or get weighted down by proselytizing, which is rare for this genre, from what I’ve read), but this, with the two characters quoting Bible verses back and forth on a fairly regular basis, felt more than a little forced.

Despite those flaws, and despite the fact that there’s just so. much. horse. stuff. in this book (I am NOT a horse person; heaven help me if my daughter ever goes through a horse phase because I will have ZERO clue what to do), this isn’t a terrible read. It moves along quickly and Noah’s baseball dilemma adds an intriguing aspect to the story; I don’t think I’d ever considered that an Amish man might want to leave his community and go into professional sports. I do wish Ms. Davids had gotten more into Fannie’s sister’s story; close to the end of the book, her sister, who is still in Florida, has ditched her Amish fiancé and has apparently hooked up with a local Mennonite man in her grandparents’ town. Now THAT is a story I want to hear more about!!!

Any category romance readers out there? I read a few back when I was younger, but they usually don’t turn my crank, literarily speaking. I prefer the longer, meatier romances most of the time, but I’m always willing to give a book a shot. 😉

Visit Patricia Davids’ website here.

historical fiction

The Solace of Water-Elizabeth Byler Younts

After finishing (and loving!) a novel about an older woman having a relationship with a mega-famous boy bander, I turned around and fell into a multiple narrative historical fiction about grief and an unlikely friendship between three hurting women, two black (one a teenager), one Amish, in the 1950’s.

Is literary whiplash a thing? It should be. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m a big fan of reading widely, reading weirdly, reading all sorts of stories, fiction and non, and there’s nothing I like more than reading stories by people who are different from me, or who live differently than I do. The world is such a fascinating place. The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson, 2018) ended up on my TBR list thanks to another blogger’s review, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a lovely read.

Dee Evans is grieving hard after the accidental drowning of her four year old son Carver. Her older daughter, Sparrow, was tasked with watching him that day and got distracted by a boy; now Carver’s gone, Dee is nearly paralyzed with grief and barely able to tolerate being near Sparrow, and the whole family is moving to Pennsylvania, where Dee’s husband will take over preaching at his childhood church. Things are different in Sinking Creek: not necessarily better, but different, and Dee isn’t sure how to relate to the white townsfolk when there are no signs telling her what she can and can’t do.

Her Amish neighbor Emma is another mystery. While Emma’s church’s stance is to not get involved in the racial tension amongst the English, Emma can’t help but find herself drawn first to Sparrow, then Dee. Emma carries multiple heavy burdens of her own and recognizes the pain that her new neighbors carry. Sparrow, however, is carrying more pain and stress than she lets on. While she strikes up an innocent but secret romance with Emma’s son Johnny, she also copes with other, more unhealthy measures, ones that will almost cost her everything when her pain, Dee’s grief, Emma’s desperation, and the town’s racial tension come to a head.

First off, major content warnings for this book. Child death via drowning, stillbirth, alcoholism, self harm, and racial tension and violence are all front and center in this book. If now is not a good time for you to read about these subjects, be gentle with yourself and choose something easier on your soul.

Dee’s grief is a terrible burden, and her anger at Sparrow is perhaps even worse. Because Carver’s death happened on Sparrow’s watch, Dee’s inability to forgive her daughter and Sparrow’s guilt combine to make an absolutely gut-wrenching maelstrom of emotion. At times, each woman’s anguish and desperation are tough to read, but Ms. Younts handles it with aplomb. Also carefully treated is the tension between blacks and whites that simmers in the town; it hadn’t occurred to me that black people who moved from the overtly racist, pre-civil-rights-era south, might be confused and apprehensive about the rules of the not-as-overtly-racist-but-still-very-racist north, and I appreciate the perspective on that that this gave me. I still have so, so much to learn.

Emma’s burden, while different, is no less. Her pain over the loss of her infant daughter, combined with so many years of keeping both her husband’s and her own secret, alienated her from her family, her community, and what she truly wanted in life, and it was easy to both sympathize with her pain and feel her joy at the connection she made with Sparrow and so desperately wanted to make with Dee. While I have no desire to be Amish, reading the descriptions of Emma’s simple ways resonated with me and ended up affecting my next book choice! I love when that happens.

With Emma being Amish and Dee being a preacher’s wife, The Solace of Water is heavy on Christianity and Christian themes like forgiveness, but without being heavy-handed. Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher, yet I didn’t find this to be overly preachy or even overly religious; the religion and beliefs of the characters are merely part of their lives and not something the author is trying to sell to her readers, which was something I very much appreciated.

The Solace of Water is a cathartic novel, full of pain, desolation, secrecy, and the capacity for suffering and loneliness, but ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship, forged connections, redemption, and forgiveness of self and others. I’m so happy that it ended up on my TBR list, because despite its heavy subject matter, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend read.

Visit Elizabeth Byler Younts’s website here.

memoir

Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order- Marlene C. Miller

Fewer than one hundred outsiders have joined the Amish and stayed. Marlene C. Miller, author of Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order, is one of them.

Marlene Miller grew up in a troubled and volatile home. Her parents argued frequently and were abusive by today’s standards and at the very least overly heavy-handed with the physical discipline for the times (Ms. Miller was born in 1944; her parents beat her and her siblings with a dog leash). Her family was always poor, and her best friend died of polio at the age of eight. In high school, her hard work led her to become head majorette (something she never lets you forget), and she began dating the young Amish man (raised in the church but not yet baptized) who would become her husband at age 16. He proposed on the day she graduated high school.

They planned a small wedding, Johnny dragging his feet the whole way, but on the day of the ceremony, he called her up and told her he couldn’t marry her on account of his wanting to join the Amish church one day. Not ideal, since she was more than a little bit pregnant at the time! After an angry meeting with Marlene’s parents, he finally consented to going through with the wedding (the text doesn’t make him seem terribly enthusiastic about this), and after she had the baby, she became a Christian when she was convinced she was going to hell while washing dishes one day. As one does. This conversion led her to tell her husband she wanted to become Amish.

What follows is a description of a life of relentless work, interspersed with childbirth on the regular. Amidst Ms. Miller’s heavy learning curve of all the things an Amish farm wife needed to know, she gave birth to ten children in thirteen years- how this happened, I’m not exactly sure, because her husband almost never seemed to be home. Johnny farmed and worked several jobs in town in order to make ends meet; when they had the time or energy to create all those children baffled me.

While Ms. Miller is perpetually optimistic about their poverty and difficult circumstances, their Amish life comes off as fairly grim. She never fully learns to speak Pennsylvania Dutch. Accidents abound on their farm (two near drownings, one child was run over by a wagon, another cracked his skull trying to repair a gas well on the property), their firstborn dies in a car accident that’s surrounded in mystery at age twenty-one, another son ended up in prison, and the majority of their surviving children left the Amish altogether. Marlene herself suffers what sounds like bouts of depression (egged on by, I’m sure, exhaustion and the never-ending hormonal fluctuations brought on by constant pregnancy and birth), and comes close to leaving at one point (but of course, she prayed, and that fixed everything right up).

I enjoyed the story of this, but the heavy-handed religiosity irritated me right from the beginning. I’m absolutely not opposed to reading the stories of people of faith; one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read is I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan, which analyzes the deep faith of both Madigan and Rogers. I loved that book for exploring its subjects’ religion without promoting an agenda. ‘Here’s what we believe and think’ is great, especially because it allows the reader to make their own decision on how they feel about those beliefs; ‘You need to believe this or else’ isn’t conducive to further conversation, and Called to Be Amish is more towards the latter. In the first few pages, Ms. Miller proclaims that no one can be truly happy without Jesus, which irked me. I find that kind of attitude stifling; making absolute proclamations like that does no one any favors and is a good way to alienate readers of different backgrounds. This book was on my TBR list from a while back, and while I’m not sorry I read it, I suppose I was hoping for more detail on what it took for Ms. Miller to adapt to Amish life, with no electricity and having to give up all the trappings of her past life.

Do you read books about the Amish, whether fiction or nonfiction? I’m guilty of reading a few ‘bonnet books,’ as I’ve seen them called, in the distant past, but haven’t for quite some time. Having learned about some of the dirtier underside of the Amish community (puppy mills, animal abuse, physical and sexual abuse of children), I’ve long since stopped being able to romanticize it as a way of life. That doesn’t mean I won’t read things about them in the future, but this book didn’t necessarily inspire me to want to read more, either.