A World Away


By Nancy Grossman

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A summer of firsts.

Sixteen-year-old Eliza Miller has never made a phone call, never tried on a pair of jeans, never sat in a darkened theater waiting for a movie to start. She’s never even talked to someone her age who isn’t Amish, like her.

A summer of good-byes.

When she leaves her close-knit family to spend the summer as a nanny in suburban Chicago, a part of her can’t wait to leave behind everything she knows. She can’t imagine the secrets she will uncover, the friends she will make, the surprises and temptations of a way of life so different from her own.

A summer of impossible choice.

Every minute Eliza spends with her new friend Josh feels as good as listening to music for the first time, and she wonders whether there might be a place for her in his world. But as summer wanes, she misses the people she has left behind, and the Plain life she once took for granted. Eliza will have to decide for herself where she belongs. Whichever choice she makes, she knows she will lose someone she loves.


Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Grossman

All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.

ISBN 978-1-4231-7809-5

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To my parents, who read to me

To Kevin and Maggie, who let me read to them

To Shari, who reads with me

And to Kenny, who reads me

The strangers were coming, as they did every Thursday night, to bring a burst of color into our plain home. I circled the dining room, checking each lantern to be sure there was enough fuel inside. June sunlight streamed through the windows, but by the end of dinner we’d need the lanterns to brighten the room and help the guests find their way back to their cars, parked in a crooked row on the lawn behind our buggy.

“How many strangers are coming tonight?” I called to my mother, in the kitchen.

“Visitors, Eliza, not strangers,” my mother said. “We’ll be having eight guests tonight.”

I tried to settle my jittery limbs as I folded a napkin beside each plate. My head was filled with thoughts about what the strangers would look like and how many holes would be in their earlobes and how many colors would streak through their hair. My mother always scolded me that these guests were coming to dine on a simple Amish meal and take a peek at our lives. She didn’t want me to be peeking at theirs. They live in their world and we live in ours, she would say, as though that would satisfy my curiosity.

My mother and I had been busy in the kitchen all afternoon, preparing roasted chicken and mashed potatoes, and the air in the house was thick with cooking smells. I walked around the table setting the silverware neatly on each folded napkin. Then, pitcher in hand, I stepped through the arched doorway that connected the dining room and the kitchen.

“Is everything ready?” my mother asked, plunging the masher in and out of the fluffy white potatoes. “The English will be here in five minutes.”

“The table’s set,” I said, carrying the pitcher to the small pump mounted on the side of the sink. I pushed the handle up and down a few times until the cold water gushed from the spout, then pumped the handle more slowly until the pitcher grew heavy in my hand. Back in the dining room I filled the glasses before my mother and I made two trips to carry the piping-hot food to the sideboard.

I watched my mother as she arranged the serving dishes. She’s never said so, but I had the feeling that she liked these Stranger Nights. While she lit the two candles that stood in the center of the table, I tried to see her the way the visitors would. Her brown hair was twisted into a severe bun that pulled the skin taut around her gleaming silvery eyes. A white bonnet, called a kapp, sat on top of her head, the two strings untied and draped over her shoulders. Her dress was a dark gray, contrasting with the crisp white apron tied around her waist.

Looking down, I smoothed my own apron and fingered my bonnet strings. My dress was blue and slightly rumpled, but otherwise my clothing was identical to my mother’s. Sometimes visitors would ask about our clothes, and my mother would explain how our dresses are sewn in a uniform style—a square neckline, three-quarter sleeves, the skirt settling just below the knees. The dress is fastened with snaps because buttons are considered fancy and are forbidden. Our clothes are plain, and so are we.

A car door slammed, and the murmur of voices reached me from outside. My mother nodded to me in her serious way, and I went to my usual spot beside the table while she greeted the visitors at the front door. They came into our living room as they always did, eyes round, heads down-turned a bit, as though trying not to stare. I saw a woman with short choppy hair scanning the books on the wooden shelf. Another woman brushed her fingertips along the back of the rocking chair, her red dress swaying as she walked. Then Mr. Allen, who owns the inn where the guests were staying, led the group to the dining room table. Mr. Allen isn’t Amish, but he knows our ways. He brought the idea of these dinners to my parents a year ago, and since then he has been a weekly guest at our table, along with the visitors.

The guests filed to the table in a quiet, orderly way, their eyes taking in the cherrywood furniture that my father had made with his own hands. I knew from other dinners that their conversations would start up again during the meal, but for now they were hushed and alert. As I watched them settle into their chairs, their eyes roaming around the dining room and the adjoining kitchen, I knew they weren’t noting what was in our house, but rather what was absent. A computer, electric lights, a telephone.

Five women and three men were gathered around the table. When I looked closer, I realized that two of those women were actually girls about my age. They sat between a man in a navy sweater and a woman with hair as orange as the carrots in the garden. I assumed they were a family. This was the first time there had ever been English teenagers in our house, and a nervous excitement rose in me. One of the girls was wearing black pants that looked more like heavy stockings than trousers, and a black shirt that hung in a billowy way just past her hips. Her hair was the color of strong coffee, and the black lines drawn around her eyes contrasted sharply with her pale skin. The other girl wore tight blue jeans and a V-neck T-shirt with bursts of pink and purple, as though a tin of paint had tipped over onto her clothing. Her dark hair was feathered with uneven streaks of deep red.

I wondered how the girls’ hair hung so straight and silky, as though it had been draped across an ironing board and pressed flat. Maybe they had used one of those gun-shaped hair dryers I’d seen at the inn. My fingers flitted to the thick brown hair trailing down my back. It was pulled back with an elastic band, but curly wisps had already come loose, and fluttered around my face. I thought fleetingly that maybe a hair dryer could help me.

The girl with the paint-spattered shirt was looking at me. Our eyes met for a moment, and I saw that her eyelids were tinted the color of lavender. The dark-haired girl stared down at her lap while the colorful girl spoke. “Hey, I’m Jess,” she said, as though it was perfectly natural to have a boy’s name. “This is my sister, Caroline.” The other girl didn’t look up.

“I’m Eliza,” I said. Then my mother stepped beside me and cleared her throat. The faces around the table turned to us, open and expectant. My mother stood serenely, one hand folded over the other, and I watched the “stranger smile” sweep across her face. I’ve come to know this expression that brings her lips outward but not up. It’s a polite smile, but not a friendly one. I glanced back at Jess and let my smile lift up in a way I hoped she would consider friendly. She grinned back, and I felt a tiny thrill.

“Thank you all for coming,” my mother said. “My daughter Eliza and I are happy to have you here. Now, let us all bow our heads in prayer.”

Before my chin dropped down to my chest, I raised my eyes and caught a quick glimpse of the strangers. Their heads were lowered, but a few kept their eyes on my mother as though waiting for the command to be lifted. Jess and Caroline looked at each other, their eyebrows raised. Their mother nudged Caroline, and she lowered her head inch by inch. The dinner prayer raced through my mind, and I felt my lips move silently along with the familiar words my mother spoke. “We thank you, our heavenly Father, for the gifts which we are about to receive. May we be truly grateful for the bounty you have bestowed. Amen.”

The guests began to raise their heads as soon as my mother and

I did. Some glanced at each other, slightly embarrassed. The two girls exchanged a look as if they had just been part of a joke.

I turned to see if my mother had noticed, but she looked the way she always did after devotions: peaceful and refreshed, the lines around her mouth and between her eyebrows lightened. After prayers, my mother actually looks pretty. I’ve noticed this every time, but it’s always a revelation.

“Eliza and I will be serving you,” my mother announced. “After your meal, I’ll be happy to answer your questions.”

At her cue, I picked up the tray of chicken and balanced it on my left arm. “Do you prefer white or dark meat?” I asked one of the women. She wore a simple dress the color of cherries, with no adornments of any kind. Her brown hair swam around her shoulders, and her eyes were pretty in their plainness, with none of the painted-on colors that I’d grown accustomed to seeing on the faces of English women. She looked too boring to be English. “White meat, please,” she said. She was watching me closely as I served her. “Thank you, Eliza,” she said, as though she already knew me. “So, are you fifteen, sixteen?”

“Sixteen,” I said.

She nodded and smiled. Not knowing what else to say, I kept moving.

I reached the orange-haired woman, whose silver bracelets sang like sleigh bells when she pointed to the piece of chicken she wanted. When I got to Jess and Caroline, I gripped the tray carefully. Jess pointed to a breast, and I set it on her plate. Her sister was looking down, a sour expression on her face. “Do you prefer dark or white meat?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “Are you serving anything that doesn’t have flesh?”

“Caroline!” Her mother looked at me with an apology on her face. “I’m sorry. She’s a vegetarian.”

“We’ll also be serving potatoes and some mixed vegetables from our garden,” I said.

Caroline nodded, her arms folded over her chest. I wondered if her parents had forced her to come to our house for dinner, the way my parents require us to go to church and to fellowship meetings. Setting the platter of chicken on the sideboard, I picked up the vegetable bowl. My mother followed me with the basket of bread until all of our guests were served.

While they ate, my mother disappeared into the kitchen to prepare the dessert. I stood by the sideboard, ready to serve second helpings or refill water glasses. Usually I liked this arrangement because it let me quietly watch the English and hear their stories. But that night my hands dangled uselessly at my sides. My dress and apron felt baggy and unbecoming next to Jess’s and Caroline’s sleek outfits.

I’d often thought about what it would be like to meet English teenagers. In my imaginings I would strike up clever conversations with them, and they’d tell me about music and movies and dancing. But now they were here, and I was awkward and tongue-tied.

Occasionally, one of the girls would take a small black object out of her pocket and rest it in the palm of her hand. She would glance down at it, tap it a few times with her thumb, and slide it back into her pocket. I wondered if these were cell phones, but the girls weren’t putting them to their ears or talking into them. At least they had something to stare at besides me.

I picked up the water pitcher and walked around the table, refilling the glasses. When I reached the woman in the cherry-colored dress, she said, “You work at the inn, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I started there last week.”

“I thought I saw you there,” she said. “How do you like your job?”

“I like it fine,” I said, aware that Mr. Allen was sitting nearby. Then the orange-haired woman spoke up, asking Mr. Allen where she could buy a quilt.

“Right here,” Mr. Allen said. “Mrs. Miller makes quilts to order. I can bring you back tomorrow if you’d like.”

I stepped over to the girls and refilled their glasses. “Would you like more of anything?” I asked. Caroline gripped her phone in both hands, her thumbs moving wildly. “No thanks,” said Jess. “But could you show me where the bathroom is?”

I set the pitcher down and led her through the hallway. When I pointed to the bathroom door, she turned to face me with a smile. “I have to admit,” she said, her voice lowered, “I was worried it might be outside.”

I felt a wave of embarrassment when I realized this girl thought we did our business in an outhouse. But her smile was open and warm, and she seemed ready to admit her mistake. “We do have plumbing,” I said, grinning. “But don’t look for a hair dryer. There’s no place to plug it in.” Jess laughed, and I tingled with an odd sense of pride.

Later, as the guests exclaimed over my mother’s apple pie, and I poured rich black coffee into everyone’s mug, I waited for my favorite part of Stranger Night, when my mother would ask, “Does anyone have questions that I might answer?” It was amazing to me that these fancy people wanted to learn about our world. “How do you dry clothes in the winter when you can’t hang the wash outside?” asked a man in a red tie.

“We run the clothesline through the living room, and on wash day we all have to dodge around it when we come in and out of the house,” said my mother.

“Is Eliza in school?” asked the woman with the short haircut.

“Our children go to school through eighth grade,” said my mother. “So Eliza’s been out of school for two years now.” I looked down, not wanting the strangers to see that I was still a little sad to have left school behind.

When a man asked about television, my mother answered the way she always did. “I have been in English homes when the television is on, so I have seen what it is.” The teenage girls looked at each other. “No MTV?” asked Caroline. I didn’t know what she meant, so I just shook my head.

The man said, “You just mentioned the ‘English.’” He paused for a moment with a small laugh. “Is that us?”

My mother gave him a polite smile. “Yes,” she said. “It’s a term that we Amish use to refer to anyone who is not Amish.”

As always, my mother’s answers were quick and blunt. Never give too much information, she has told me. We have invited them into our home, but not into our lives.

The orange-haired woman mentioned that she has heard about “courting carriages” and she wanted to know if any children in the family were courting.

“Our son James has a courting carriage,” my mother said. “But, like some of you with your teenagers, I’m not always sure where he goes in it.”

There were soft chuckles around the table. “Are there any other questions?” my mother asked.

“Yeah,” said Caroline. “What do you do for fun?”

My mother turned to me. “Would you like to answer that, Eliza?”

Everyone looked at me, waiting. “Well, we get together with our friends,” I said. “There are parties. We go into town.” My words felt weak. The sisters exchanged one of their looks.

Now I wished that I could be the one asking the questions. I would ask these girls what they did for fun, and how they painted their eyes, and what it felt like to pick out different clothes to wear every day. I would ask them what it was like not to be plain.

I took a breath as though to speak again. My mother glanced at me, and I held my tongue.

The woman in the cherry-colored dress cleared her throat, and when I heard her words, I froze. “Has Eliza reached the age for rumspringa?”

My eyes opened wide. Rumspringa is a time when Amish teenagers are allowed to run wild. To step out of the plain world. It was not a subject that ever came up at Stranger Night, and for once I didn’t know how my mother would answer.

My sister Margaret passed rumspringa by going right to baptism and marriage. Margaret is what the elders call “Good Amish.” My brother James had left home to apprentice at a woodworking shop and had written us letters about computers and video games. After he returned to work with our father, I would sometimes catch him staring out the window, and I wondered if he was thinking about that other world, where buttons aren’t sinful and where cars speed by, leaving the buggies behind.

Now it was my turn. Since my sixteenth birthday, three weeks ago, I’d been waiting to see what rumspringa would bring me. My head was filled with thoughts of leaving my home in Iowa and seeing how they live in the fancy world. But so far my parents had told me nothing about their plans.

Taking in a breath, I watched my mother’s hands clasp together a bit too tightly in front of her apron, and I waited to hear what she would tell these visitors. When she spoke, her voice was smooth and polite, the way it always is when she talks to the English.

“I suppose there are some of you here who don’t know what rumspringa means.”

The strangers shook their heads, and my mother continued.

“The Amish lifestyle is one that we choose, not one that we are born into. In order to choose properly, we Amish feel that our children must be given the chance to see what the outside world is like. So, our teenagers have a period of independence before they take up our ways.”

“What do they do?” asked Jess.

“They probably do a lot of the same things you do,” my mother answered. “They ride in cars and go to movies. They wear blue jeans. They have parties.” She paused with a smile. “I don’t think I want to know what goes on at the parties.”

The adults around the table smiled in a knowing way—except for the woman who had asked the question. She was watching my mother intently. I wondered how this English woman knew about rumspringa.

I set down the coffeepot and turned back to my mother. She nodded to me before speaking again. I was beginning to think that her answer was for me, and not for the people gathered at our table.

“So, we parents turn our heads and let our teenagers run a bit wild. And we hope that soon they will come back to us.”

“What about Eliza?” Jess asked. “What’s she doing for her rum…for her running-wild time?”

I waited, holding my breath, hoping that my mother’s answer would give me a clue about what was ahead for me.

“Eliza has a job at the inn. Some of you might have seen her there serving breakfast and tidying up the rooms. Her father and I wanted her to see a little more of the world than we can show her here, so we talked to Mr. Allen about finding some work for her.” My mother and Mr. Allen nodded to each other.

I let out the breath I had been holding. Now I had the answer I’d been waiting for these past weeks. Rumspringa wasn’t going to take me into the fancy world. It was taking me to an inn, where I’d watch English tourists watching us. I felt myself sinking, and there was only one thing I knew for certain.

I needed to run wild.

At the inn the next morning, Jenny, the cook, greeted me and gave me instructions as she pulled a tray of muffins out of the oven, filling the room with a warm, fruity scent. Her kapp was a bit askew, as though she had put it on in a hurry. “We’re serving breakfast in a half hour,” she said, handing me the small silver bell. I hated this part of the job. In the hallway, outside the guest rooms I rang the bell and called out, “Breakfast will be served at nine o’clock.” I heard a man grumble from behind one of the doors, “What is this, Amish boot camp?” I didn’t understand what that meant, but it didn’t sound pleasant. Back in the kitchen I could hear people assembling in the dining room and helping themselves to coffee from the big urn. The murmurs of their conversations floated into the kitchen.

Jenny was suddenly in a hurry, and I rushed to keep up with her instructions. She showed me how to plate each breakfast with a scoop of egg soufflé, a spoonful of cut fruit, and a muffin. She would carry out two plates at a time, and I had to be ready with the next ones when she returned. I would rather have been serving the guests than standing in the kitchen getting the food ready, but Jenny was in charge, so I had to do as she told me.

Cleaning up at the inn was easier than at home, because a machine did most of the work. On impulse, I placed the palms of my hands on the front of big dishwashing machine and felt a warm vibration against my fingertips. Jenny seemed unimpressed by the wonders of this invention, and sat at the counter, hunched over her grocery list. “I’ll be gone for about an hour,” she said. “You can dust the parlor while I’m out.”

Pulling my hands away from the machine, I looked at my fingers, which didn’t appear to be any different after the close contact with electricity. I was turning toward the closet to find the dusting supplies when the kitchen door swung open. There stood the woman from Stranger Night, the one in the red dress who had asked about rumspringa. She wore black jeans and a T-shirt with the words “University of Illinois” across the chest. Her hair was pulled back in a silver barrette. I watched as recognition lit the woman’s face.

“Well, hi, Eliza. I’m Rachel. Rachel Aster.” The woman held her hand out, and I felt the unusual softness of her skin. “I was wondering if I could trouble you for a pot of tea to bring up to my room. I didn’t make it down in time for breakfast.”

Mrs. Aster perched on a stool while I filled the teakettle and set it on the stove. “I enjoyed my dinner at your house last night,” she said. “Your mom’s a great cook.” I turned the knob on the stove until the circular coils under the teapot turned a bright orange.

“Thanks, I’ll tell her you said so.”

“I have to admit something,” Mrs. Aster said, her voice low, as if letting me in on a secret. “I was disappointed to hear that you had a job.”

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

“Last night when I asked you about your job here, I had an ulterior motive.”

Setting the basket of tea on the counter beside a small china teapot, I turned to her. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what that means.”

Mrs. Aster smiled and rested her elbows on the counter. “An ‘ulterior motive’ is when someone hopes to gain something by their actions. So I was hoping to gain something by asking you that question.”

“What were you hoping to gain?”

She let out a little laugh. “You.”

The teakettle whistled, and I twisted the knob to shut off the burner. I turned back to her. “Me?”

“My nanny is leaving after this week, and I’m about to hire a new one. The way you helped your mother last night made me think you could help me the same way. Then I realized that you looked familiar, so I asked you about your job. And that ended my hopes.”

Breath that I didn’t realize I’d been holding pushed through my lips. “You want to hire a babysitter?”

She nodded. “You see, I’m working on my master’s degree, and I need some help with the children so I can get my thesis finished. That’s the big paper I have to write. As a matter of fact, the reason I’m here right now is to get some work done away from my family. It was a gift from my husband. A week away from home to write.”

I tried to keep my hands from trembling as I poured the hot water into the teapot and set the kettle back on the stove. But, I reminded myself, my parents would never approve of my leaving home and working for someone they didn’t know. I took a tea bag and let it bounce in the hot water.

I set the teapot and cup on a small tray, along with some packets of sugar. Mrs. Aster’s eyes were searching mine. They were a golden color, like honey.

“How many children do you have?” I asked.

“Two,” she answered. “Ben is eight and Janie is five.”

I tried to think of what to say to this woman, but I knew that I couldn’t discuss the possibility of working for her until I’d talked to my parents. Too quickly, the conversation ended and Mrs. Aster carried the tray upstairs. While I dusted, I listened again to her words in my mind. I didn’t know where she lived, but it was far enough away that she was sleeping at the inn each night instead of at her own home. This could be my chance to step away from here.

Throughout the morning I watched the comings and goings of the guests, hoping to see Mrs. Aster again. Later, when I was cleaning the guest rooms, a familiar voice answered my knock. Mrs. Aster was propped up on a four-poster bed, a small machine with typewriter keys on her lap. Several open books were scattered on the bed, and she pushed them aside when I came in.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I can come back later.”

She gathered up the books and stuffed them into a canvas bag at the side of her bed and closed the lid on her typewriting machine. “You can do what you need to in here,” she said. “I’m going to go out for a while.” Watching Mrs. Aster sling the canvas bag over her shoulder, I tried to gather courage for what I wanted to say.

I cleared my throat and took a shaky breath. “If you have a moment, I’d like to talk to you about what you said earlier. About my working for you as a nanny.”

Mrs. Aster sat down on the edge of the bed, her bag clutched in her arms. “Are you looking for a new job?”

“I’ve been thinking about it.”

“I live near Chicago. It’s about three hours away from here by car. How would your parents feel about your living away from home?”

“We’d have to talk about it,” I said, groping for the right words. Then I remembered what my mother had told the guests last night. “They do want me to see more of the world.”

“Well, should I go over to your house to talk with them?”

My heart pounded. “Things are a little busy at home right now.

Sunday is my sister’s barn raising. But I’ll talk to them over the weekend, if that’s all right.”

“I’ll be here until Tuesday,” she said.

I nodded as Mrs. Aster stood up and shouldered her bag. “I’ll let you know what my parents say.”

“Wonderful!” she said. “I hope this works out. I could really use your help.”

And I could really use yours, I thought, as I watched her go.


On Sale
Jul 17, 2012
Page Count
400 pages

Nancy Grossman

About the Author

Nancy Grossman works for the Honors Program at DePaul University in Chicago, and teaches courses in creative writing. A World Away is her debut novel.

Learn more about this author