Review: In the Land of Milk and Honey by Jane Jensen

In the Land of Milk and Honey by Jane Jensen is the 2nd Elizabeth Harris Mystery (Available August 2, 2016).

What a horrific opening, an Amish family in the dead of night, surrounded by “the smell of vomit and bile.” But Jane Jensen hurtles us into the ultimate terror. Mother Leah decides to check in on all her children, starting with her fourteen-year-old Will, who has been very ill.

She stepped closer to the top bunk, went up on her tiptoes, and reached a hand out to touch William’s forehead. He was a barely distinguishable shape in the dark. Her fingers touched wetness, partially dried and sticky. It was around his mouth, which was slack, open, and felt oddly firm. The smell of something foul came from where her fingers had been. Alarmed, she drew back her hand and paused for only a moment before reaching for the Coleman lamp on the bedside table. She turned it on. Keeping the other boys asleep was no longer the foremost concern on her mind.

“Will?” She blinked as her adjusted to the light. She stepped on the lower bunk and pulled herself up to look at her son.

A moment later her scream echoed through the silent house like a gunshot.

Jensen’s first Elizabeth Harris novel, Kingdom Come, established homicide detective Harris as a valued and respected outsider with ties of friendship within the reclusive and private Amish community. Hannah Yoder, after an afternoon of strudel making in her farmhouse kitchen, reaches out to Elizabeth Harris with her worries about a sick Amish family. Hannah shares her deepest worry, when Elizabeth points out that “it sounds like a case for a doctor, not the police.”

Hannah tugged at her cap self-consciously, her eyes downcast. “Some believe it is not a normal sickness but hexerei, a curse.”

Homicide detectives are not fans of curses as the cause of inexplicable deaths, but as a “gut friend” to the Amish, Harris visits the Lancaster General Hospital and starts asking questions. Later that evening, Ezra Beiler, an ex-Amish farmer and Harris’s live-in partner, fleshes out the meaning of hexerei, when Elizabeth asks:

“What’s a brauche man?”

“Ah. Well, a brauche man does a kind of magic. Sometimes it’s called powwow.”

“Magic?”

“They use prayers and plants and whatnots, but some say it’s magic all the same. You go to them when you’re sick or there’s a problem with an animal or bad weather.”

In the Land of Milk and Honey constantly straddles the line between detailed, diligent, perceptive police work and the necessity of understanding the secrets and traditions of the Amish farming community. The title alludes to the poisonous culprit behind the mounting death count: raw milk from Amish cows, tainted and deadly. 

It’s all too easy for politicians worried about public safety to blame seemingly anachronistic Amish dairy practices for the epidemic, particularly after the poison tremetol is discovered in the blood of the deceased after they are autopsied. Harris works with Dr. Glen Turner, an investigator from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to investigate all the possible ways the milk became contaminated. Their paramount goal: to discover the source of tremetol poisoning. 

How In the Land of Milk and Honey differs from a standard police procedural is in its other-worldly setting. Terrified of more deaths from poisoning, Elizabeth struggles to understand Ezra’s viewpoint that to the Amish, raising animals “is a blessing and a responsibility.” She blurts out, “But it’s just milk!”

The gulf between me and Ezra rarely felt this wide, but he was looking at me with his brow wrinkled in confusion. He gave a frustrated grunt. “No such thing as ‘just milk.’ When you have a family cow, you drink milk at every meal, and between meals too. It’s free and it’s gut for the body. If you’re feeling peaky, you drink milk. If you can’t sleep, you drink milk. If the milk jug is empty, you go milk the cow. If the cow is dry, you go milk the neighbor’s cow.”

The wisdom of Harris’s Amish neighbors, coupled with patient, meticulous, imaginative police work, ultimately unravels the evil that threatens the rural paradise where she works and lives. I look forward to reading Jensen’s next mystery set in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Amish community.

 

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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!

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