This reading group guide for Promise to Return includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Byler Younts. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Miriam Coblentz and Henry Mast are a young Amish couple in love, yet to be wed, living during the time of World War II. Their dreams of marriage and a family are put on hold when Henry is recruited. Initially Henry serves as a conscientious objector at a Civilian Public Service camp, while Miriam waits longingly for him to return. And he does, except as a changed man. Henry enlists in the army, going against their Amish ways, believing that God has called him to fight in the war.
Miriam is left to decide between loyalty to her church, beliefs, and parents or the young man who holds her heart. A physical war sets a context for a journey of faith, love, and loss as a young Amish woman battles her own internal war for the man she loves. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Did you grow up in a faith tradition? What are the benefits of being in community, be it faith-based or not? What would you define as your present community?
2. Henry enlists with the army, a decision that goes against the Ordnung
and others’ expectations of him. Describe a time you made a decision that went against others’ expectations of you. What led you to make that decision?
3. What presuppositions of Miriam and Henry’s Amish culture affected your viewpoint on their demonstrative displays of affection? Did these consistent and romantic interactions surprise you in any way? Explain.
4. Miriam feels like life is passing her by as she waits on Henry during his time of active duty. It was agonizing for her “to watch as everyone around her continued to move ahead while she stood still, stagnated by Henry’s leaving” (page 71). Do you identify with the feeling that life is passing you by? What are you waiting on in this present season? How does your posture of waiting resemble Miriam’s? How does it differ?
5. How does Henry’s response toward Miriam’s kissing of Eli parallel God’s response to Miriam? How have others in your life shown you grace?
6. In Exodus 20:12, the sixth commandment states, “Honor your father and your mother . . .” Miriam struggles with this commandment, as evident on page 126. What Miriam “really wanted to know was what God said about what to do when the division was between her loyalty to her parents and love for her intended husband.” How does Miriam honor or dishonor her parents? How does Miriam’s struggle to honor her parents compare and contrast with the struggles for today’s generation?
7. When Miriam’s mother is burned, Miriam is far away from home with Henry, getting their marriage license. Because of this, she assumes that if she “had just followed the rules, she wouldn’t have been burned” (page 159). The “rules” she is referencing are those of her religion. Do you think Christianity is based upon a set of rules, or a relationship? Why?
8. After Miriam stands Henry up for marriage, she boldly stands up to her parents and declares her intentions to be with him. Additionally, she prays aloud for the first time. Discuss what feelings may have prompted Miriam to take these actions.
9. Why do you think rejection by her family, friends, and church did not propel Miriam faster toward a life with Henry outside of the church? Recall a time when a decision you made brought rejection from your community. Did you seek to please those by whom you had been rejected? Why or why not?
10. Identify the benefits of having an authority figure like the Aumah Deanuh
and official warnings like the auh gretahs
in the Amish community.
11. What is the significance of the scene of Miriam’s father’s death in chapter 20?
12. Describe the second visit from the Aumah Deanuh
(pages 248-51). In your opinion, did Miriam participate in confession in any way? What are your views of public confession before the church?
13. When Miriam is finally given the chance to go see Henry, their worlds collide. “Saying yes to Henry meant saying no to her confession . . . The peace in her heart, however, told her that God had chosen for the clashing circumstances to each be part of her life. He found beauty in His plan for her” (page 260). How is this a defining moment of the way Miriam views God? What moments of ‘clashing circumstances’ have defined your view of God? Explain.
14. How does Miriam’s Mem
travel her own journey of loyalty to her husband and church versus her unyielding love and commitment to her children? How do you view her Mem when she gives Miriam the white kapp
at her wedding but leaves briefly afterward?
15. In what ways does the author demonstrate that war transcends all boundary lines, be it age, culture, religion, wealth, or nationality throughout her novel? Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Amish’s willingness toward humility, community, and submission to the will of God is at odds with the individualism rampant in today’s society. This anti-individualism is highlighted by the value they place on community and rejection of technologies that could make one less dependent on that community. Select one of the technology items below that most prevents you from investing in or developing true community. Then, choose to refrain from that item for a set amount of time, ranging from one day, one week, or a month.
• Mobile Phone
• Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest
2. Try a few Amish recipes this week from www.NotQuite AmishLiving.com where Elizabeth Byler Younts is a contributing writer! If you would like, bring it to your next book club meeting.
• Brown Sugar Dumplings—http://notquiteamish living.com/2012/09/brown-sugar-dumplings/
• Pumpkin Pie—http://notquiteamishliving .com/2012/12/imperfect-paleo-pumpkin-pie/
• Coffee Cake—http://notquiteamishliving .com/2012/12/my-favorite-coffee-cake/
• Pineapple Jello Salad—http://notquiteamishliving .com/2013/01/to-jello-salad-or-not/
3. Author Elizabeth Byler Younts has also written an Amish memoir titled Seasons: A Real Story of an Amish Girl
. This is a story of her grandmother Lydia Lee Coblentz, who grew up in an impoverished American family through the Great Depression. Read this memoir and discuss how this book differs from Promise to Return
4. Widespread adoption of the home computer and Internet among the Amish does not exist. In light of this and the prevalence of letter writing in Promise to Return
, write and send a letter this week to a loved one rather than an email or text. A Conversation with Elizabeth Byler Younts Have you always wanted to write?
I wrote my first novel at age eleven. I was hooked. About this same time I promised my Amish grandma that I would someday write the story of her life. I think I’ve always thought in story form and “novelized” the real and make believe. It seems I have always had characters in my head telling me their stories. Describe your favorite writing location or room.
I love a room with a view! I wrote the majority of Promise to Return
at my parent’s house in rural Michigan, while my husband was deployed. They have an amazing three-seasons room facing the wooded area behind their house. Having that natural landscape and all those windows was perfection. But often I find myself in my living room when everyone else in the house is sleeping . . . this means my “view” is usually toys and laundry. I have the TV on for background noise or I can’t write. A Starbucks couch also works. What authors inspire you?
I have been mentored by Allison Pittman for several years. Her voice in Christian fiction and her amazing teaching has been integral in my own writing. I just love her as a writer and as a dear friend. Tricia Goyer has also been a huge inspiration to me. She is a homeschooling mom who still manages to write and encourage other writers. I love her perspectives on how to balance mom-life and writing-life. What was the inspiration for writing Promise to Return?
Really it started with writing Seasons
, my Amish grandma’s memoir. Writing historical fiction fits me but so does Amish fiction . . . so I married the two. My Amish grandpa was drafted in WWII and I always enjoyed hearing his stories about the Civilian Public Service. In exploring this I became infatuated with the amazing stories of conviction and sacrifice that I read in my research. I wanted to bring this history to readers. So, Miriam and Henry’s story was born! Your family was Amish before converting. What are some of the most common misconceptions about the Amish life- style that you experience?
The concept of their simple life is true in many ways . . . but that doesn’t mean they have simplicity in their relationships. They are so very human and struggle with the same problems non-Amish do: marriage, parenting, finances, etc. Because they deal with these issues or struggles very privately, it can appear that they don’t exist at all. What Amish lessons of simplicity do you incorporate into your own family?
Something that I am very adamant about is that we have family dinners together at the table without electronic distractions. We have home-cooked meals most nights and very little gets in the way of this family time. We also make time for Bible lesson and prayer most evenings with our daughters. How does your own spiritual journey shape the journey Miriam takes?
Wow, this is a good question. As I wrote Miriam’s story my husband and I were living out our first deployment. It was like the historical military world of Miriam and my modern military world collided. As a military wife you know it is your job to hold down the home front while your husband is away serving; knowing this does not make it easy to do, however. My dependence on the Lord grew stronger than it’s ever been during the deployment and I could use my emotions to capture some of what Miriam may have experienced. In Promise to Return, you paint realistic and engaging scenes of family dynamics. Within those scenes, you illustrate that the Amish are equally human, with temptations, joys, internal struggles, and feelings. In what ways is the role of family and its authenticity important to you?
Authenticity is a word I often use. It is very important to me to be real with my husband, children, and friends. Being perfect, or pretending to be, doesn’t help anyone. Being real with our own insecurities and failures can. Not only does this make you more relatable but it also eliminates judgment. No one is perfect. We all have our big and small hang-ups. It doesn’t mean we have to bare it all for the world to see, but when it is helpful, we should share with each other. This is especially important with children—to show them a graceful way to be real, even in failures and mistakes. At the end of your book, you note that the history of the Amish is rich with conviction that affected American politics and history. How do you see this even today?
In the climate of our politics today I believe that the Amish provide a social conscience. I especially recognized this when the Amish suffered the Nickle Mines school shooting in 2006. Their testimony and conviction were visible worldwide. I was so very impressed with their example. With Promise to Return now complete, what are your plans for future writing?
I’m so excited to share Book Two of The Promise of Sunrise
series. It takes the reader on a journey with Eli Brenneman, from Promise to Return
, as he serves in the Civilian Public Service at a mental asylum. He will meet a beautiful nurse, Christine, and both will learn more about acceptance, the value of all human life, and love.