Book Reviews

Book Review: Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult – Murder in a World Most Alien to Us

We discovered the books of author Jodi Picoult in my house when one of them appeared on the school reading list for the summer.  The teens and I were immediately hooked, and we began soaking up her novels one by one.  Picoult manages to craft a story with the human element as well as often helping the reader to question our belief systems in the world.

In Plain Truth, Picoult enters the world of the Amish.  An infant is found dead in an Amish barn.  As the state investigates, life goes on around the farm.  The wife is unable to have any more children, which leads the chief suspect to be the teenage daughter.  Katie Fisher is in denial about everything – the pregnancy, the baby, the consequences of the investigation.

Fortunately, the family is distantly related to Ellie Hathaway, an up-and-coming defense lawyer.  She’s just won a huge case in Philadelphia that’s left a rather bad taste in her mouth.  While staying with her Aunt and Uncle at their farm, she hears of Katie’s plight and reluctantly agrees to represent her.  In order to get Katie released on bail, someone has to be responsible for her, and that falls to Ellie.  Ellie moves onto the Amish farm and attempts to chart out Katie’s defense.

The most interesting part of Plain Truth is watching the two worlds collide.  Ellie adapts well in some ways while colliding with the constraints of her situation at other times.  The details of farm life were presented well without becoming too mundane or boring.

The story itself was somewhat uneven.  Some of the characters were well fleshed out and enjoyable to read about.  I liked watching the truth unfold about what happened to Katie and the baby.  Picoult holds back enough to really keep the reader guessing right until the end.  I thought I had it figured out, but it turned out I was wrong.  The relationship that builds between Ellie and Katie is nice and grows in a seemingly natural way throughout the book.

However, there were numerous secondary characters that aren’t fleshed out quite so well.  Katie’s father, Aaron, seems to be a bit of a one-note character with a stern manner and almost fanatical devotion to the Amish way of life.  His father lives with them, but is rarely heard from or about.  Likewise, Katie’s mother, Sarah, seems to have little depth throughout the novel and is often more on the outside looking in.  Perhaps this works to explain some of her actions and how she learned to quietly work around her husband’s stern rules.  It’s hard to really get to know them.  Ellie’s Aunt Leda is also somewhat on the outside as the focus seems to be mainly on both Ellie and Katie’s romantic life when it’s not on the case at hand.

That’s where I thought the book lost a bit of momentum as well.  I just can’t imagine the people in this very conservative culture accepting Ellie’s romantic escapades as nonchalantly as they seem to.  On one hand, they deny in the beginning that Katie could have done what she is accused of simply because “that doesn’t happen to us” yet they accept certain events which take place with Ellie without batting an eye.  It just seemed a plot point that was somewhat hard to swallow.

The way the situation unfolds is handled quite well, as Picoult reveals a little here and there throughout the book which keeps the reader turning the page.  Picoult as always has done her research and the details are truly amazing to read.  It’s one of the reasons that I enjoyed the book so much whereas another book with some of the shortcomings I noted wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.  The look inside the Amish way of life was fascinating, from the farm work to the way the community came together and worked together.  Just as there are more radical elements in our society, Aaron Fisher is something of a radical even to his local bishop.  The fact that Picoult worked with people such as Donald Kraybill who has written one of the best books I’ve ever read about the Amish culture and forgiveness, Amish Grace, speaks volumes about the depth of her research and her credibility as a novelist.

That’s what Plain Truth is – a novel.  It shouldn’t be mistaken completely for a narrative on the Amish way of life.  Still, the insights into a life that’s quite mysterious to many of us are coupled with a terrific story that keeps the reader interested.