Moving seamlessly from psychological drama to courtroom suspense, Plain Truth is a fascinating portrait of Amish life rarely witnessed by those outside the faith.
When a young Amish teen hides a pregnancy, gives birth in secret, and then flatly denies it all when the baby's body is found, urban defense attorney Ellie Hathaway decides to defend her. But she finds herself caught in a clash of cultures with a people whose channels of justice are markedly different from her own… and discovers a place where circumstances are not always what they seem.
What others are saying about Plain Truth …
A featured selection of the Literary Guild.
“A Witness-meets-Agnes of God courtroom thriller… both absorbing and affecting.”
“Appealing, suspenseful… Reads like a cross between the Harrison Ford movie Witness and Scott Turow's novel Presumed Innocent, with a dose of television's The Practice thrown in to spice up the legal dilemmas.”
“Enter attorney Ellie Hathaway —a woman with her own emotional scars—who finds herself defending Katie on the charge of first degree murder, living on an Amish dairy farm, and discovering truths about herself as well as her client.”
Book club discussion questions for Plain Truth
- What character has the most to learn during the course of this novel? Why?
- In what ways does immersing herself in Amish culture alter Ellie's perception of the case? Of Katie?
- Does the American legal system have the right to govern a group that lives separate from American society?
- To what extent is Katie responsible for what happens to the infant?
- What role does Hannah's ghost play in forming Katie's actions? Sarah's?
- Jacob Fisher and Leda are two characters who bridge diverse worlds in this novel. Are they successful? Explain.
- Do the actions of the men in this book aid or detract from the growth of the female characters? Explain.
- Was Aaron Fisher justified in cutting Jacob out of the family?
- The Amish base much on the concept of Gelassenheit, or humility, and putting others before yourself. What examples support this? In what places in the book does this not happen, and how does it affect the society?
- Forgiveness is a basic tenet in the Amish faith. Which Amish character in this book forgives the most? Who is the most unyielding?
- What about the Amish culture is similar to “English” culture? What is the most different?
- Is the verdict a fair one, in your opinion?
- Why would an Amish person accept a punishment without having committed a crime?
- What do you think would have happened if the baby had lived?
- In your opinion, what occurs after the last page is turned-- to the Fishers, to Katie, to Ellie?
- What do you think Ellie will do with the information she learns from Sarah at the end of the book?
- Why do we care so much about Katie Fisher? How does her specific situation come to touch upon universal issues like community estrangement and forbidden love?
- What kind of a man is Aaron Fisher? As you were reading, what were your reactions to his choices? If you had to, could you make a case for defending his code of life, his propensity to put the community above the individual?
- "You know how a mother would do anything, if it meant saving her child,"Sarah tells Ellie. And earlier on, referring to her ability to butcher chickens with remorse, Sarah says to Ellie, "I do what I have to do. You of all people should understand."What is Picoult up to here? Why should Ellie in particular understand this?
- "We all have things that come back to haunt us,"Adam Sinclair tells Katie at one point. "Some of us just see them more clearly than others."Discuss the ways in which the ghosts of the past come to haunt the present action in PLAIN TRUTH. Of all the book's characters, who comes to "see"things most clearly? Ellie? Jacob? Sarah? Explain.
- What kind of future do you see for Ellie and Coop? For Katie and Samuel? Jacob and his Plain heritage?
- Discuss the significance behind the title. Is "Plain Truth"a different sort of truth than "plain truth"?
An excerpt from Plain Truth
She had often dreamed of her little sister floating dead beneath the surface of the ice, but tonight, for the first time, she envisioned Hannah clawing to get out. She could see Hannah’s eyes, wide and milky; could feel Hannah’s nails scraping. Then, with a start, she woke. It was not winter-- it was July. There was no ice beneath her palms, just her own slick skin. But once again, there was someone on the other side, fighting to be free.
As the fist in her belly pulled tighter, she bit her bottom lip. Ignoring the pain that rippled and receded, she tiptoed barefoot into the night.
The barn cat yowled when she stepped inside. She was panting by now, her legs shaking like willow twigs. Lowering herself to the hay in the far corner of the calving pen, she drew up her knees. The swollen cows rolled their blue moon eyes in her direction, then turned away quickly, as if they knew better than to bear witness.
She concentrated on the hides of the Holsteins until their black spots shimmied and swam. She sank her teeth into the rolled hem of her nightgown. There was a funnel of pressure, as if she was being turned inside out; and she remembered how she and Hannah used to squeeze through the hole in the barbed wire fence by the creek’s edge, pushing and angled, all knees and grunts and elbows, until by some miracle they’d tumble through. It was over as suddenly as it had begun. And lying on the matted, stained hay between her legs was a baby.
· · · · · ·
Aaron Fisher rolled over beneath the bright quilt to stare at the clock beside the bed. There had been nothing, no sound to wake him, but after forty-five years of farming and milking the smallest things could pull him out of sleep: a footfall in the corn, a change in the pattern of the wind, the rasp of a mother’s tongue roughing a newborn calf.
He felt the mattress give as Sarah came up on an elbow behind him, the long braid of her hair curling over her shoulder like a seaman’s rope. “Was ist letz?” What’s the matter?
It was not the animals; there was a full month before the first cow was due to deliver. It was not a robber; there was too little noise. He felt his wife’s arm slip around him, hugging his back to her front. “Nix,”he murmured. Nothing. But he did not know if he was trying to convince Sarah, or himself.
· · · · · ·
She knew enough to cut the cord that spiraled purple to the baby’s belly. Hands shaking, she managed to reach the old scissors that hung on a peg near the pen’s door. They were rusty and coated with bits of the twine from the hay bales. The cord severed in two thick snips, and then began spurting blood. Horrified, she pressed her fingers to the ends, pinching it shut, wildly looking around for something to tie it off.
She rummaged in the hay and came up with a small length of baling twine, using it to make a quick knot. The bleeding slowed, then stopped. Relieved, she sank back against the hay-- and then the newborn started to cry.
She snatched the baby up and rocked it tightly. With her foot, she kicked at the hay, trying to cover the blood with a clean layer. The baby’s mouth opened and closed on the cotton of her nightgown, rooting.
She knew what the baby wanted, needed, but she couldn’t do it. It would make this real.
So she gave the baby her pinky finger instead. She let the small, powerful jaws suckle, while she did what she had been taught to do in times of extreme stress; what she had been doing for months now. “Lord,”she prayed, “please make this go away.”
· · · · · ·
The rustle of chains awakened her. It was still dark out, but the dairy cows’ internal schedule had them rising at their individual stalls, their bags hanging blue-veined and round with milk, like full moons caught between their legs. She was sore and tired, but knew she had to get out of the barn before the men arrived to do the milking. Glancing down, she realized that a miracle had come to pass: the blood-soaked hay was fresh now; except for a small stain beneath her own bottom. And the two things she’d been holding when she fell asleep-- the scissors, and the newborn-- were gone.
She pulled herself to her feet and glanced toward the roof, awed and reverent. “Denke,”she whispered, and then she ran out of the barn into the shadows.
· · · · · ·
Like all other sixteen-year-old Amish boys, Levi Esh no longer attended school. He’d gone through the eighth grade, and was now in that limbo between being a child and being old enough to be baptized into the Amish faith. In the interim, he was a hired hand for Aaron Fisher, who everyone knew no longer had a son to help him work his dairy farm. Levi had gotten the job through the recommendation of his older cousin Samuel, who’d been apprenticing with the Fishers now for five years. And since everyone knew that Samuel was probably going to marry the Fisher’s daughter soon and set up his own farm, it meant that Levi would be getting a promotion.
His workday started at 4 AM, as on all other dairy farms. Still pitch dark, Levi could not see Samuel’s buggy approach, but he could hear the faint jingle of tack and traces. He grabbed his flat-brimmed straw hat and ran out the door, then jumped onto the seat beside Samuel.
“Hi,”he said breathlessly.
Samuel nodded at him but didn’t turn, didn’t speak.
“What’s the matter?”Levi teased. “Katie wouldn’t kiss you goodbye last night?”
Samuel scowled and cuffed Levi, sending his hat spinning into the back of the buggy. “Why don’t you just shut up?”The sun set the ragged edge of the cornfield on fire as they drove on in silence. After a while Samuel pulled on the reins and stopped the buggy in the Fisher’s front yard. Levi scuffed the toe of his boot into the soft earth and waited for Samuel to put the horse out to pasture; then they both walked into the barn.
The lights used for milking were powered by a generator, as were the vacuum pumps hooked up to the teats of the cows. Aaron Fisher knelt beside one of the herd, spraying the udders with iodine solution and then wiping them dry with a page ripped from an old phone book. “Samuel, Levi,”he greeted.
He did not tell them what to do, because by now, they already knew. Samuel maneuvered the wheelbarrow beneath a silo, beginning to mix the feed. Levi picked up the shovel and began to clean the manure in each cow’s stall, looking to Samuel all the time and wishing he already was the senior farmhand.
The barn door opened, and Aaron’s father ambled in. Elam Fisher lived in the grossdawdi haus, a small apartment attached to the main building. Although Elam helped out with the milking, Levi knew the unwritten rules: to make sure he carried nothing heavy; to keep him from taxing himself; and to make him believe that Aaron couldn’t do without him, although Aaron could have, any day of the week. “Boys,”Elam boomed, then stopped in his tracks, his nose wrinkled above his long, white beard. “Why, we’ve had a calf.”
Aaron stood, puzzled. “No. I checked the pen.”
The old man shook his head. “There’s the smell of it, all the same.”
“More like it’s Levi, needing a bath,” Samuel joked, emptying a fresh scoop of feed in front of the first cow.
As Samuel passed him with the wheelbarrow, Levi came up swinging, and slipped on a slick of manure. He landed on his bottom in the ditch built to catch the refuse and set his jaw at Samuel’s burst of laughter.
“Come on now,”Aaron chided, although a grin tugged at his mouth. “Samuel, leave him be. Levi, I think Sarah left your spare clothes in the tack room.”
“Yes, sir.”Levi scrambled to his feet, his cheeks burning. He walked past Aaron, past the chalkboard listing the notes on the cows that were due to have calves, and turned into the small cubby that housed the blankets and bridles used for the farm’s workhorses. Like the rest of the barn, it was neat as a pin. Braided leather reins crossed the wall like spider webs, and shelves were stacked with spare horseshoes and jars of liniment.
Levi glanced about, but could see no clothing. Then he noticed something bright in the pile of horse blankets. Well, that would make sense. If Sarah Fisher had washed his things, it had probably been done with the other laundry. He lifted the heavy, striped blanket and recognized his spare trousers and jewel-green shirt, rolled into a ball. Levi stepped forward, intending to shake it out, and found himself staring down into the tiny, still face of a newborn.
· · · · · ·
“Aaron!”Levi skidded to a stop, panting. “Aaron, you’ve got to come.”He ran toward the tack room. Aaron exchanged a glance with his father, and they both started after the boy, with Samuel trailing.
Levi stood in front of a stool piled high with horse blankets, on top of which rested a sleeping baby wrapped in a boy’s shirt. “I… I don’t think it’s breathing.”
Aaron stepped closer. It had been a long time since he’d been around a baby this small. The soft skin of its face was cold. He knelt and tipped his head, hoping that its breath would fall into the cup of his ear. He flattened his hand against its chest.
Then he turned to Levi. “Run to the Schuylers and ask to borrow their phone,”he said. “Call the police.”
· · · · · ·
“Get out,”Lizzie Munro said, laughing at the officer-in-charge. “I’m not going to check an unresponsive infant. Send a patrolman.”
“The patrolman’s already there. He wants a detective.”
Lizzie rolled her eyes. Every year that she’d been a detective-sergeant with the East Paradise Township police, and the new cops seemed to get younger. And more stupid. “It’s a medical call, Frank,”she told the corporal.
“Well, something’s out of kilter down there.”The officer-in-charge handed her a slip of paper with an address on it.
“Fisher?”Lizzie read, frowning at the surname and the street address. “They’re Amish?”
Lizzie sighed and grabbed her big black purse and her badge. “You know this is a waste of time.”In the past, Lizzie had occasionally dealt with Old Order Amish-- mostly teenagers, who’d gather together in some guy’s barn to drink and dance and generally disturb the peace. Once or twice she’d been called to take a statement from an Amish businessman who’d been burglarized. But for the most part, the Amish had little contact with the police. Their community existed unobtrusively within the regular world, like a small air bubble impervious to the fluid around it.
“Just take their statements and I’ll make it up to you.”Frank held the door open for her as she left her office. “I’ll find a nice, fat felony for you to sink your teeth into.”
“Don’t do me any favors,”Lizzie said, but she was grinning as she got into her car and headed to the Fisher farm. · · · · · ·
The Fisher’s front yard was crowded with a squad car, an ambulance, and a buggy. Lizzie walked up to the house and knocked on the front door.
No one answered, but a voice behind Lizzie called out a greeting, the cadences of the woman’s dialect softening her consonants. A middle-aged Amish woman wearing a lavender dress and a black apron hurried toward Lizzie. “I am Sarah Fisher. Can I help you?”
“I’m Detective-Sergeant Lizzie Munro.”
Sarah nodded solemnly and led Lizzie into the barn’s tack room, where two paramedics knelt over a baby. Lizzie hunkered down beside one EMT. “What have you got?”
“Newborn, emphasis on the new. No pulse or respirations when we got here, and we haven’t been able to revive him. One of the farm workers found him wrapped up in that green shirt, underneath a horse blanket. Can’t tell if it was stillborn or not, but someone was trying to hide the body all the same. I think one of your guys is around by the milking stalls, he might be able to tell you more.”
“Wait a second-- someone gave birth to this baby, and then tried to conceal it?”
“Yeah. About six hours ago,”the paramedic murmured.
Suddenly the simple medical response call was more complicated than Lizzie had thought, and the most likely suspect was standing three feet away. With curiosity, Lizzie glanced up at Sarah Fisher, who wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “The baby… it’s dead?”
“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Fisher.”
Lizzie opened her mouth to ask another question, but was distracted by the the distant sound of equipment being moved about. “What’s that?”
“The men, finishing up the milking,”Sarah said.
Lizzie’s brows shot up. “The milking?”
“These things… “Sarah said quietly. “They still have to be done.”
Suddenly, Lizzie felt profoundly sorry for the woman. Life never stopped for death; she should know that better than most. She gentled her voice and put her hand on Mrs. Fisher’s shoulder, not quite certain what sort of psychological state the woman was in. “I know this must be very difficult for you, but I’m going to have to ask you some questions about your baby.”
Sarah Fisher raised her eyes to meet Lizzie’s. “It’s not my baby,”she said. “I have no idea where it came from.”
· · · · · ·
A half-hour later, Lizzie leaned down beside the crime scene photographer. “Stick to the barn. The Amish don’t like having their pictures taken.”The man nodded, shooting a roll around the tack room, with several close-ups on the infant’s corpse.
At least now she understood why she’d been called down. An unidentified dead infant, an unknown mother who’d left it behind. And all this smack in the middle of an Amish farm.
She had interviewed the neighbors, a Lutheran couple who swore that they’d never heard so much as raised voices from their neighbors the Fishers, and who couldn’t imagine where the baby might have come from. They had two teenage daughters, one of whom sported a nose and navel ring, who had alibis for the previous night. But they agreed to undergo gynecological exams, if necessary. Sarah Fisher, on the other hand, had refused. Lizzie considered this as she stood in the milk room, watching Aaron Fisher empty a small hand tank of milk into a larger one. He was tall and dark, with the ropy muscles developed by farming. His beard brushed the second button of his shirt. As he finished, he set down the tank and turned to give Lizzie his full attention.
“My wife was not pregnant, Detective,”Aaron said.
“Sarah cannot have any more children. The doctors made it that way, after she almost died giving birth to our youngest.”
“Your other children, Mr. Fisher… where were they when the baby was found?”
A shadow passed over the man’s face, gone as quickly as Lizzie had marked it. “My daughter was asleep, upstairs, at the time. My other child… is gone.”
“Gone, like down the road to her own home?”
“This daughter who was asleep is how old?”
At that, Lizzie glanced up. Neither Sarah Fisher nor the paramedics had mentioned that there was another woman of childbearing age who lived on the farm. “Is it possible that she was pregnant, Mr. Fisher?”
The man’s face turned so red that Lizzie grew worried. “She isn’t even married.””It’s not a prerequisite, sir.”
Aaron Fisher stared at the detective coldly, clearly. “It is for us.”
· · · · · ·
It seemed to take forever to get through all forty cows, and it had nothing to do with the arrival of a second battalion of police officers. Samuel closed the pasture gate after letting out the heifers and walked toward the main house. He should go help Levi sweep out the barn one last time for the morning, but this once it would wait.
He didn’t bother to knock. Just opened the door, as if the home was already his, and the young woman inside at the stove also belonged to him. He stopped for a moment, watching the sun trace her profile and gild her honey hair, her movements quick and efficient as she fixed breakfast.
“Katie,”Samuel said, stepping inside.
She turned quickly, the spoon flying up in the batter bowl as she startled. “Oh, Samuel. I wasn’t expecting you yet.”She peered around his shoulder, as if she might see an army behind him. “Mam said I ought to make enough for everyone.”
Samuel walked forward and took the bowl, setting it onto the counter. He reached for her hands. “You don’t look so good.”
She smirked. “Thanks for the compliment.”
He drew her closer. “Are you okay?”
Her eyes, when they met his, were the clear green of the tobacco plants that grew thick and lush. They were what had first attracted him to Katie, across a crowded church service. They were what made him believe that, even years from now, he would do anything for this one woman.
She ducked away from him and began to flip the pancakes. “You know me,”she said breathlessly. “I get nervous around these Englischers.”
“Not so many,”Samuel said. “Only a handful of policemen.”He frowned at her back in concern. “They may want to talk to you, though. They seem to want to talk to everyone.”
She set the spatula down and turned slowly. “What did they find out there?”
“Your mother didn’t tell you?”
Katie slowly shook her head, and Samuel hesitated, torn between her trust in him to tell her the truth, and the desire to keep her blissfully unaware as long as possible. He ran his hands through his straw-colored hair, making it stand on end. “Well, they found a baby. Dead.”
He saw her eyes widen, those incredible eyes, and then she sank down onto one of the kitchen chairs. “Oh,”she whispered, stunned.
In a moment, he was at her side, holding her close and whispering that he would take her away from here, and to heck with the police. He felt her soften against him, and for a moment Samuel was triumphant-- after so many days of being rebuffed, to finally come back to this. But then Katie stiffened and drew away. “I don’t think this is the time,”she chided. She stood and turned off the stove’s gas burners, then folded her arms across her middle. “Samuel, I think I would like you to take me somewhere.”
“I want you to take me to see this baby.”
· · · · · ·
“It’s human blood,”the medical examiner confirmed, kneeling in the calving pen in front of a small, dark stain. “And human afterbirth. Someone had that baby here less than five hours ago.”
He hesitated. “I can’t say without doing the autopsy… but my hunch says no.”
“So it just… died?”
“I didn’t say that, either.”
Lizzie sat back on her heels. “You’re telling me someone intentionally killed this baby?”
The man shrugged. “I guess that’s up to you to find out.”
Lizzie calculated quickly in her mind. Given such a small window between the baby’s birth and death, chances were that the perpetrator of the crime was the infant’s mother. “What are we talking? Strangulation?”
“Smothering, more likely. I should have an autopsy report within twenty-four hours.”
Lizzie thanked him and wandered away from the scene the patrolmen were now securing. All of a sudden this was no longer an abandonment case, but a potential homicide. There was enough probable cause to get a warrant from a district judge for blood samples; evidence that might point a finger at the woman who had done this.
She stopped walking as the barn door opened. A tall blond man-- one of the farm help-- stepped into the dim light with a young woman. He nodded at Lizzie. “This is Katie Fisher.”
The girl was lovely, in that sturdy Germanic style that always made Lizzie think of fresh cream and summertime. She was also so nervous that Lizzie could nearly smell her fear. “I’m glad you’re here, Katie,”Lizzie said, gentling her voice. “I’ve been looking for you, so that I can ask you some questions.”
At that, the girl moved closer to the blond giant beside her. “Katie was asleep last night,”he said. “She didn’t even know what had happened until I told her.”
Lizzie tried to gauge the girl’s response, but something had distracted her. She was staring over Lizzie’s shoulder into the tack room, where the medical examiner was supervising the removal of the baby’s body.
Suddenly the girl wrenched away from Samuel and ran out the barn door, with Lizzie chasing her to the farmhouse porch.
As reactions to death went, this was a violent one. Lizzie watched the girl trying to compose herself, and wondered what had prompted it. Had this been any ordinary teen, Lizzie would have taken such behavior as an indication of guilt-- but Katie Fisher was Amish, which required her to filter her thoughts. If you were Amish, you could grow up in Lancaster County without TV news and true-crime movies, without rape and wife-beating and murder. You could see a dead baby and be honestly, horribly shocked by the sight.
Then again, there had been cases in the news in recent years; teenage mothers who’d hidden their pregnancies, and after the birth, had tied up the loose ends by getting rid of the newborn. Teenage mothers who were completely unaware of what they’d done. Teenage mothers who came in all shapes, all sizes, all religions.
Katie leaned against a pillar and sobbed into her hands. “I’m sorry,”the girl said. “Seeing it-- the body-- it made me think of my sister.”
“The one who died?”
Katie nodded. “She drowned when she was seven.”
Lizzie stood beside her, looking onto the fields-- a green sea that rippled with the wind. In the distance, one of the horses whinnied, and another answered. She said quietly, “Do you know what happens when you have a baby?”
Katie narrowed her eyes. “I live on a farm.”
“I know. But animals are different from women. And if women do give birth, and don’t get medical attention afterward, they may be putting themselves in great danger.”Lizzie hesitated. “Katie, do you have anything you want to tell me?”
“I didn’t have a baby,”Katie answered, looking directly at the detective. “I didn’t.”But Lizzie was staring at the porch floor. There was a small maroon smudge on the painted white planks. And a slow trickle of blood, running down Katie’s bare leg.