Janette Oke. When Calls the Heart. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1983.
When Calls the Heart is the first book of Janette Oke’s Canadian West series. I recently read the first two books of the Return to the Canadian West series, which Janette Oke co-wrote with her daughter (see my reviews here and here). The Return to the Canadian West series focuses on Beth, who went to the Canadian West to teach in a poor mining community, inspired by the example of her aunt (or, technically, according to some reviews I have read, her cousin) Elizabeth. The Canadian West series is about Elizabeth going to the Canadian West to teach.
In reading When Calls the Heart, what first struck me was the similarity in names between Elizabeth’s family members and Beth’s family members. Both Beth and Elizabeth have a sister named Margret and a winsome, adventurous sister named Julie. The main difference, as far as I could see, was that Elizabeth had brothers. One of them, Jonathan, is in the Canadian West and invites Elizabeth there to teach and to find a husband.
Something else that struck me in reading When Calls the Heart—-and, incidentally, in reading When Courage Calls (the first book of the Return to the Canadian West series) and Catherine Marshall’s Christy, which is about a young woman who goes to the Great Smokies to teach—-is that the protagonist does not seem to be inspired to go teach the poor out of some profound sense of religious or moral idealism. I am not saying that such a motivation is completely absent, for one reason that Elizabeth goes to the Canadian West is that she realizes that it needs a teacher. But that appears almost to be an afterthought, for she has other reasons: she feels restless, and her mother wants her to go out there to support her brother Jonathan. Why do some of these kinds of stories depict the heroine going to a poor region without much of a sense of idealism? Perhaps it is to set the stage for her personal growth, or to highlight that she may not entirely know what she’s getting herself into. (The latter theme is in Christy, but not so much in When Calls the Heart.)
In terms of spiritual or religious lessons, I preferred the Return to the Canadian West series to When Calls the Heart, and the reason is that the former focused more on doing good, getting along with people, and having a personal relationship with God, whereas the latter had more about sin and atonement and heaven being a place where people are not sick. There was one theme in When Calls the Heart that I found to be profound, however: when a father tells his erring son that there is nothing hurtful within God. Personally, I wonder how that could be reconciled with the concept of hell being a place where people are eternally tormented, but Christians have their prepackaged answers to that, and I do not particularly want to get into that debate.
I could identify some with Elizabeth’s attempts to be social, and I actually admired her in one situation. Elizabeth, like a lot of characters in fictional books I have read, seems to be a bit of an introvert (and the reason that I encounter so many introvert characters in fictional books may be that the authors themselves are introverts). I am not saying that she is an extreme introvert, for she does say in one place that she preferred dining and laughing with others to dining alone. Yet, she also said that she preferred when the children were around because then the people with whom she was dining could focus on the children rather than asking her a bunch of questions; I could somewhat identify with that. In terms of where I admired her, I think of the scene when she is critical of the young men flirting with her, wondering why they have to be so silly. She says, however, that she took special care not to humiliate them.
The book was slow and it did not knock my socks off, but it was an okay read.