Winner of the 2006 Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction
Dusk. An Amish farm in Ohio. Will's father doesn't recognize him at first--it's been eight years--so he holds a match up to Will's face to see him better. "I thought you were dead," Levi Mullet says, then blows out the match and walks away.
This is not how it's supposed to be. Where's the fatted calf? The party?
For years, Will has worked to overcome the ban of his father and the Old Order Amish community. Only now, when the life of his own son hangs in the balance, does he begin to see the truth--that love is the proof of God, and forgiveness the proof of love.
Levi's Will is the mesmerizing story of an Amishman seeking to build a bridge across three generations.
In 1943, 19-year-old Will Mullet flees his pacifist Amish community of Apple Creek, Ohio, leaving behind a pregnant girl and a rigid, God-fearing home to find a new life. He enlists in the military, marries a southern belle and tries to erase every trace of his past. But he can't completely disengage from his roots, and nor, he belatedly discovers, does he want to. Levi, Will's father, is slow to accept the prodigal son. Decades pass, and as Will's life and relationship with his own children unfolds, "he begins to see that every man's failure dips its roots into the previous generation and drops its seeds into the next." Cramer shifts eras and narrative styles from chapter to chapter, sometimes following Will's life in the 1940s as a young single man, sometimes chronicling other decades leading up to and including the 1980s. Readers may be challenged by such time jumps, as well as the novel's multiple settings (Florida, Ohio, Europe) and numerous characters. Although it lacks some of the passion of his previous novel, Bad Ground, this quiet follow-up powerfully portrays the relationships between fathers and their children, the bitterness of rejection and the redeeming power of friendship, faith and forgiveness.
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Baker Publishing Group
September 30, 2009
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Excerpt from Levi's Will by W. Dale Cramer
He reaches out, not quite awake yet, and his forearm comes to rest on the other pillow, cool and vacant, before he remembers where he is. It's a strange bed, not because it's a thousand miles from home, but because Helen isn't in it. Sitting up, rubbing his face, he thinks of calling her, but it's too early. After forty years he knows he will find no kindness in Helen at five o'clock in the morning. She's been known to cuss at that hour. There is no clock. He knows the time without turning on the light to look at his watch. All his life, as far back as he can remember, with or without an alarm clock, he has always awakened at five.
There's a snap and a rumble when the gas furnace ignites and pumps warm air through the little mobile home as it has done often during the night, fending off the brunt of an Ohio winter. Still, the air is cold on his legs when he flings the covers back. He steps into the pants he left on the chair last night and pulls yesterday's sweater over his head. The floor is cold too. His feet slip into his shoes.
Drawing back the curtain he sees the snow has stopped falling sometime in the night, and now the stars burn fiercely, as if the newly departed clouds had polished them in passing. The valley rests under an endless white comforter, a shroud of tangible silence quickened and sharpened in the glow of a crisp full moon hanging above the hilltops. The road in front of the trailer has disappeared during the night, and no grinding, clanking snowplow has yet come to break the landscape with a belt of salt and slush. Here in the country there are no streetlights to cast a pall of darkness beyond their own garish glow. The cold luminescence of a sea of moonlit snow is challenged only by the distant glint of yellow lamplight in the kitchen window of a farmhouse tucked in against the eastern hillside, where a thin ribbon of smoke stretches from stovepipe to stars. The barn is quiet, the cows out of sight. The trees are heavy with snow. Nothing moves. A deep sleep lies over the valley.
He has come to bury his father. The event is a milestone for any man--the falling of the last barrier before his own yawning mortality--but for Will McGruder it is more, having lost great chunks of his father in the tempest of his life, a tempest that with every passing year seems more preordained. Men are grass, he thinks. He stands very still at the window and lets his mind wander over the hills until, in a little while, he begins to merge with the night and the land. The aches and sorrows of his sixty-year-old body fall away and he ceases to be aware of himself as he is. The earth--this particular earth, beneath the snow--holds the memory of him as he was. The eyes of his mind see another night, another season, another valley.
T he two-story white frame house shone pale blue in the moonlight. There were no lights on, not because of any wartime blackout or other of Roosevelt's conservation plans, but because it was an Amish house and it had never coveted electric lights. It was a big, square, solid farmhouse, gutgemacht, a stark fortress between the road and the farm, between the World and the earth. Upstairs, the six boys slept in a large corner bedroom--Mose, the eldest, in his own single bed, Will and Tobe stacked in bunks, and the three youngest together in a double bed. Across the hall, three girls shared roughly the same arrangement. Clara, Will's older sister, had married and left home back in the spring. The other nine children remained. Opposite the stairwell, on the other end of the house, slept the parents--Levi, the patriarch, and Elizabeth, his second wife.
Will, the next to the eldest son, lay staring at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of the night. Since midnight the rhythmic buzzing of insects had quieted as the window-shaped rectangle of moonlight had inched its way along the heart-pine floor to the middle of the room. Mose breathed evenly and deeply, immersed in the sleep of the just, exhausted from a long day of cutting hay. The low rumble of their father's snore swelled and ebbed all the way from the other end of the house, a snore that had held steady for the last hour.
It was time.
Will slithered out of the top bunk and down to the floor carefully so as not to make the faintest whisper of sound, but it did no good. Tobe had been waiting. He flung back the covers, swung his legs over from the bottom bunk, fully dressed, and wiggled his feet into his boots. Always the hasty one, Tobe finished tying his laces first and rose, starting for the door. Will snagged his suspenders to stop him, then shook his head, pointing at the window.
Tobe went first, out the window and across the tin roof of the summer kitchen, dropping his hat to the ground, grabbing onto the limb of the walnut tree and swinging out. The limb bowed under Tobe's weight, but it would hold. It had held before. His legs flailed for a second, then clamped on the limb, and he monkeyed down. Will followed, and moments later the two boys picked up their wide-brimmed hats from where they had dropped them among the gladiolas. Will paused there, reaching down to run his fingertips up the length of a thick leaf.
Elizabeth Mullet took pride in her flowers. Her beds of tulips and roses and lilies were the envy of even the Amish women. Her kitchen garden, in the flat just below the house, was ringed about with a thick bank of marigolds, which she claimed kept insects away, and sprinkled with mothballs she claimed kept out the rabbits, though rabbits had been scarce for the last two years thanks to Tobe and his four-ten. It was the one thing he did well. The moonlight was bright enough so that Will could make out the shapes of the potato plants, overlarge this year, and he wondered briefly how the potatoes would fare after the wet spring, whether it would be a bumper crop or if the growth had all gone to the plants and the potatoes themselves would be full of rot. The green beans were almost ready, even if Will would not be around to eat them. He snugged his hat on his head and moved on.
Limping slightly, favoring a sore knee as they neared the woodshed, Tobe said softly, "I don't know why we wouldn't just come down the stairs."
"Well, little brother, do you know which step creaks? Is it the third or the fourth?"
"It's the third one, I'm sure."
"It's the fifth," Will said, glancing back at the house. "And his bed is just on the other side of the wall. You would awaken the bear, and then what would become of me?" He flinched involuntarily as the thought flashed across his mind and left its thumbprint, as a bright light seen for a moment leaves a print upon the eye: What was a man, that one loose tread could alter the course of his life?
Tobe sighed and said nothing, his customary response to the constant criticism he endured from his brothers and his father. He was flighty, and Will would not have let him come if he'd had any choice. On this night choice itself seemed a thing of the past, a childhood memory. Tobe had caught him hiding his bundle in the woodpile yesterday and instantly guessed his plans, so now Tobe would come with him. Burrowing into the pile, Will's sure hands tossed aside sticks of firewood until he reached the burlap bag. Drawing it out, he flipped the bundle over his shoulder and set off at a trot, making for the wooded ridge silhouetted in the distance.
Near the barn the air still held the cloying scent of butchered chickens, for his sisters had cleaned out the chicken house early in the week. One of the big Belgian draft horses--Will's favorite, the one who liked rutabagas--snuffled in his stall, saying goodbye as the boys glided past the barn door.
He paid little attention to where he stepped as he crossed the strawberry patch--the strawberries were nearly finished now anyway--though he avoided the raspberries entirely, since they were just getting ripe.
Running on the even ground between the windrows he heard Tobe's steps falling behind, felt the crunch of stubble underfoot and smelled fresh-cut hay on the night breeze. He flexed his broad shoulders against the slight soreness left by the hay fork--a good soreness, the residue of strength and youth. Will knew he would be badly missed in the fields this coming week, the last week of June. After three days of sunshine the anxious farmers would be rushing to get hay in before the next rains came. These would be the longest days of the year. Levi Mullet and his sons would fill every minute with work from well before daylight until pitch dark. Will's hands and back and legs were strong, this he knew. If he could have chosen, he would have left in the wintertime. Leaving now, with so much work to do, drove yet another nail through his heart.
Skirting the upper cornfield, nearing the woods, he dodged around the depression left by the stump he and Mose dug up last winter where lightning had killed the old oak tree. Will's feet knew where it was, even in the dark, but he heard the "Oof!" behind him as Tobe plowed straight into it and went down face first in the damp grass. Will stopped at the edge of the woods where the land began to slope upward, and waited.
Limping even worse after tripping over the stump hole, Tobe finally caught up to him, laughing that peculiar little snorting, derisive laugh of his--the impish laugh of a sixteen-year-old boy.
"Brother, we'd better be a long ways gone before morning," he said, doffing his wide straw hat and dragging a sleeve over his brow in a single practiced motion. "I wish I could see the old man's face when he finds out."
Tobe saw the whole thing as an adventure, a lark. For all his faults he was a sweet boy, full of light and laughter. He kept no record of grievances, and he had not lived long enough nor fallen hard enough to understand that other people do. He thought no more of running off to the World with Will than he would think of hitching a horse to the hack and driving to the store for a bag of salt. Even now, the punishment Levi would heap upon him at his returning would last only a little while, and then life would be good again. Tobe didn't allow people to expect too much from him, and so they were never deeply disappointed.
Will, however, stood at the edge of an abyss. Looking back across the moonlit fields at the only home he had ever known, it was a watershed moment in his life and he knew it. If he left now, he could never return. If he stayed, he could never leave.
Beyond this ridge lay the World, with all its wonder and terror and mystery, though for Will the mystery was not so deep as it might have been for some. Except for the last three weeks, Will had been farmed out for more than two years to Abel Elliot, an Englisher farmer a few miles up the road, and he had used the time well. Abel had been kind to him, partly because the war had made good help scarce--the average Amish teenager would outwork two Englishers, and Will was above average--but also because he just plain liked the boy. After the first two months Abel had loaned him a horse and buggy for his own personal use, arguing that it just made sense, for the hour and a half Will spent working instead of walking would more than pay for the rig in a year's time. Abel had also loaned him old copies of The Saturday Evening Post to read, and Will had devoured them, hiding them here and there, reading whenever he could do so without being seen. When Abel gave him a pocket dictionary he took the name literally and carried it in the deep front pocket of his homemade trousers for the better part of two years. He would read a magazine while driving to the Elliot farm and back every day, and whenever he encountered a new word the dictionary would flash from his pocket. Like all Amish, his first language was Dutch; he had learned English in school. Attending the local public school until he finished the eighth grade, he had always admired the English boys--their facility with language, their fancy clothes, their modern haircuts. Some of them wore shoes, even in warm weather, and sometimes they had a nickel for a candy bar. One of them, Earl McGruder, had been Will's friend in spite of their cultural differences, and shared store-bought Hershey's bars with him. It was a kindness Will would long remember. He hadn't seen Earl in several years. He was probably away at the war.
Whenever Will ate lunch in Abel Elliot's kitchen he would drop hints about the radio until Abel, smiling patiently, turned it on. Music, stories, war news, baseball, Will didn't care--it was radio. It was the World, and it called to him.
It called to him now, hesitating on the threshold as the realization settled in that he was saying a last goodbye to every warm thing he had ever known. Goodbye to the farm six miles outside of Apple Creek, Ohio, whose every rock and shrub he knew blindfolded; goodbye to home and family and friends; goodbye to field and forest, plow handle and ax--all the solid, familiar things that had anchored his hands and feet and heart to the earth. His mouth formed silent words in his native Dutch, and though he would not have called it a prayer--for it was a certainty now that in the morning he would be excommunicated and even God would have no more to do with him--they were words from the bottom of his heart. Mattie would be there, and then she would know.
In his mind he could see her standing before them in the cold morning light with no one to stand beside her and no place to hide her shame. He could see, as plainly as if he were there, her ankle-length black caped dress, the starched white covering, the flush of her cheeks, her tender downcast eyes. As always, a fierce grief welled up within him, filled him to bursting, and might yet have turned him back had not his father's wrath planted its iron feet, as always, in the short breech between remorse and repentance. Levi Mullet's thundering demands for immediate and unconditional surrender, delivered in the innate fury of his coal-fired contempt, might well have been the only force on earth capable of preventing the very repentance he demanded.
Things might have gone differently. Remorse might have won out and life might have been somehow redeemable if only Will's father hadn't been so right, if only Levi Mullet hadn't been the very model of righteousness. Yet there it was--that heaping measure of condemnation could only be meted out by a truly righteous man. No soul could long thrive in the glare of such withering and justifiable wrath. Will chose exile because it seemed a lesser kind of death.
Even now, his heart pounded with anger over the path he was being forced to take, but take it he would. He would wrest control of his life away from his father, away from the constricting coils of a church that said to him: You will live in this house and do this kind of work. You will marry this girl, wear these clothes and cut your hair this way. You will have as many children as your wife can bear, and teach them to live the same.
He would not. He would turn instead to the World, with its infinite choices, where he would control his own life and choose his own destiny. Mattie was the price. Though he thought sometimes it would worry a hole in his heart, he knew he must abandon her or stay.
And he simply could not stay.
A train whistle sounded in the distance. Tobe shifted his feet and glanced up the ridge. "Shouldn't we be going?" he asked.
Will nodded absently, his eyes on the fields. "There's still a lot of sweet corn to plant," he said quietly, a final apology, then turned his back and trotted up into the woods.
* * *
The engine puffed and grunted and hissed, leaning into its work, dragging an infinite string of coal and cattle cars across the trestle and up out of the valley. At the first sight of a black rectangle denoting an open door on the side of a cattle car the two boys broke from the trees and ran up alongside the train, stumbling in the cinders, straining to get up to speed before the open door caught up with them.
The floor of the car was higher than Will had expected. His feet arced underneath the belly of the train and he came close to falling, but then he managed in the next second to swing a leg up and roll himself inside. Tobe, who was shorter of leg than his older brother, panted through gritted teeth, struggling, neither gaining nor losing ground. Even at full speed he was visibly limping from the pain in his knee, and Will could see he wasn't going to make it. Cinching the end of the burlap bag tightly around his hand Will leaned out the door as far as he could and swung the bag toward his brother's face. Tobe caught hold in the same instant that his eyes went wide with surprise, for his toe had snagged a crosstie. Any other boy falling beside the wheels of a moving train would have let go, but Tobe trusted the resolve of his brother. He clung to the burlap, and before his knees could hit the ground Will hoisted him up, swung him bodily through the door, and sent him tumbling all the way across the rough oak floor of the cattle car. He sat up against the far wall rubbing his knee.
Will went over and sat down beside him, opening the bag and reaching inside to see if any damage had been done to the food he had brought along.
"What do we have to eat?" Tobe said, still grinding his palms against his knee.
"Yeah. What do we have to eat?" said another, deeper voice from the shadows at the end of the car.
Tobe sprang to his feet, peering into the darkness, his body taut and ready to bolt. Will drew his feet under himself and closed his fist about the bag, but he didn't get up. His eyes were growing accustomed to the darkness inside the cattle car and he could make out movement. The blackness shifted. Moonlight flashed through the slats like a strobe, and he caught a glimpse of a man rising, first to a sitting position and then standing at the front of the car. Tobe's eyes switched nervously from the man to Will.
"We didn't know you were in here," Will said.
"You do now," the voice answered, and the man moved closer. Will rose to face him and saw, as the stranger moved into the half-light of the open door, that he was slight of build and the hair showing below his sweat-stained felt hat was gray. His clothes hung on him like a scarecrow's, and the left sleeve of his moth-eaten coat lay oddly flat and empty against his side. Will was no fighter, but even he could see that this one-armed old man posed no threat. The rhythmic clacking of steel wheels quickened as the train picked up speed on level ground, and yet despite the rocking of the car Will noticed the old man's upper body didn't sway, his legs automatically compensating for the motion.
"We got some trail bologna and some cheese," Will said, reaching his arm down into the bag.
The man's eyes watched suspiciously. His hand slipped into a trouser pocket and came back out hiding something. Very slowly, Will extracted a foot of dark burgundy bologna and held it up for him to see. The man took it, gripped the knot in his teeth, snapped open the pocketknife he had palmed, sliced off the top quarter of the bologna, handed the rest back to Will, and then folded the knife against his thigh and slipped it back into his pocket. All of this was done quickly and without taking his eyes off of Will. He bit off a chunk of bologna, dragged a sleeve across his lips, and giving a slight nod toward Will's wide, flat-brimmed straw hat, said, "Pennsylvania Dutch."
"Amish," Will answered.
"Same thing. You running away?"
Will hesitated, unsure of his ground. "Why do you say that?"
The man coughed--or laughed, it was hard to tell. "I been ridin' these rails better'n ten years, and I know this part of the country up and down. You ain't the first Amish boys I seen." The bologna in his hand waved roughly at Will's chin. "You got no beard. Means you ain't married, right?"
"Just a kid." Chuckling, he bit another plug from the bologna and abruptly sat himself down against the slats where the boys had been sitting. He patted the floor next to him.
"Sit down, kid. You need old Peavey's help, I can see it in your eyes. I ain't got a dime to my name, but I'm a veritable fount of wisdom," he said, tapping his temple. "Peavey always pays his way. Boloney for bologna--seems fair enough, don't it?" His own joke got the better of him, and his gravelly laugh evolved into an uncontrollable fit of coughing.
Will sat down next to him, cautiously, keeping his knees raised and holding the bag between his feet. Tobe crossed his arms and remained standing despite the constant and slightly embarrassing struggle to keep his balance.
"I gotta tell ya, first of all, yer nuts," Peavey said. "I seen them farms like where you come from. It's heaven, I tell ya. I don't know what your problem is?.???bCrLfwhaddaya, bored??.???bCrLfbut if I was you I'd turn right around and march back home and square things with my old man before it's too late."
"It's too late already," Will said.
Peavey snorted a little laugh, but there was no mirth in it. Staring out the door at the sparse lights of Fredericksburg, something hard and cold surfaced on his face. "No," he said. "You're too young for it to be too late. Go back home, son."
Twisting the neck of the bag in his rough hands, Will said nothing, shook his head.
"All right, then. All right." Peavey nodded, staring cross-eyed at the bologna, picking out his next bite. "Then you gotta get rid of the hat and the clothes. And the hair too--makes you look like a rube. Things ain't like it was ten years ago when everybody was hungry and guys looked out for each other. Nowadays it's dog-eat-dog. Rule number one--don't trust nobody. You're on the lam, right?"
Will's fingers played absently with the hair hanging down over his ears in a thoroughly Amish bowl cut. "I'm on what?"
"On the lam--running, hiding. Kid hops a freight in the middle of the night, he's runnin' from somebody. It's your old man, right? He'll come after you, won't he?"
"Yes. He'll be looking for us, sure." He'll move heaven and earth. You don't know him.
"Then rule number two is never use your real name. What is your real name, anyway?"
Quick as a snake, without even dropping the bologna, Peavey whipped his hat off and swatted Will over the head with it. "Wha'd I tell ya? I give you two simple rules and you break both of 'em in ten seconds flat! You ain't got a prayer, kid."
Peavey, who had spent a fair portion of his life as an unwelcome guest in freight cars, knew how to make friends quickly. Will was beginning to like the little man but wondered how Peavey, even though he did seem to know a great many things, could possibly know that he could not pray. He would have to learn to hide himself better.
"So, William Mullet, where ya headed?" The old man stuffed the last of the trail bologna in his mouth and wiped greasy fingers on a dirty pant leg.
"South," Will said.
Peavey choked on a chuckle, then knifed his hand out in front of him and said, "Now that's what I call a flexible plan. You might just make a hobo after all, William Mullet."