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Amish fiction characters–stereotypes in Plain clothing?

Last Friday Elin left a comment on the post “Do we romanticize the Amish?“:

“I have read some of these books and enjoyed them but I have realized that the Amishness of the characters is not more than polish. They are often just stereotypical ‘good Christian’ wearing Amish clothes.

They are the same characters as in the Christian inspired fairytales I had as a child which me and my brothers and sisters used to read and snicker about when we got to about 10 or so when we could see how unbearingly good and perfect these people were and how unrealistic that was.

We knew by then that real people do not act like that and that is what I often feel when I meet the characters of an Amish fiction book. They are just stories about how the perfect Christian would react and Amish hasn’t anything to do with that.”

I find this topic interesting.  But I’ll be frank, I’m not up to date on Amish fiction.

amish fictionI simply have not read much–a grand total of a few chapters.  Not that what I read wasn’t entertaining.  I just have a long list of books to read and tend to favor non-fiction.

But knowing how Amish are portrayed in other areas of media, I can see how Elin’s assessment could be the case.

However I wonder if those who’ve read Amish fiction books have an opinion. On the same post, Beth, who actually writes Amish fiction, added:

“Readers can’t get enough of the Amish life style and traditions. They don’t want to read non-fiction Amish, they want the story as they think it should be in their minds, which is very often not accurate.”

Again, I can’t comment on specifics, but it seems to me that to write a compelling story (or, for that matter, to keep readers’ attention for an entire series of books) “character” would be important.

For those who know Amish fiction better, are these opinions correct?  Are the characters in Amish fiction deeper than one-dimensional stereotypes?

Do readers want the “ideal Amish” portrayal–or something more complex?

Photo credit: Gregg Obst

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    80 Comments

    1. Wow Alice, thanks!

      I almost feel like I oughtta pay for a plug that good 🙂

      I’m really glad if it was of help. I have to credit all of my Amish business owner interviewees, who contributed so much to the book.

    2. Richard

      www.Amishstorys.com

      Alice might not want any kind of payment, but i could use a new pair of shoes. Im just saying. Richard

    3. Alice Aber

      Erik's Book & Richard's plug, LOL

      You are very welcome Erik. I just said what I really feel. No payment necessary for telling the truth. Besides the best endorcements are free. 😉 You are an excellent writer. Bad at getting birthday cards in the mail though, LOL. Still has not arrived yet, maybe tomorrow?

      Richard, I could use a new pair of shoes too, but not at Erik’s expense. I do think its cute you got a plug in for your blog site, LOL. Nope it did not go unnoticed, LOL. You’re too cute Richard!!!

      Blessings,
      Alice

    4. Wendy

      Alice, I’ve had Erik’s book in my Amazon shopping cart for a month now! I need to finish two other books before adding his to my pile. I look forward to learning some business Amish wisdom. =)

      Living nearby local Amish stores/shops, I’m always enthralled witnessing them in action. They’re always so busy, but unhurried in their manner, honest, polite, efficient, orderly…and so forth.

    5. Darlene

      I’ve been lurking around Amish America for a while now and finally want to throw my 2 cents into the pot.

      I’m a dedicated reader of Amish fiction and I read it for pretty much one reason…when I’m stressed I can escape to Pennsylvania or Ohio and live a life COMPLETELY different from my own.

      At one point I had read all the Amish fiction that was out there and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t keep up! It seemed like Amish stories came out of the woodwork. Now I can pick and choose!

      I’m an avid reader of many other genres as well but I really do like to imagine the slower pace of a horse and buggy lifestyle and the hard work of running a home (with no electricity) and working the earth. Then I get up, load the dishwasher, watch a show on TV and go online to check Amish America to see if there is anything new to read!

    6. Alice Mary

      My bad, though they're both good authors!

      Erik, I’m so embarrassed! YES, I did mean Beverly LEWIS. (I’ve worked in Youth Services most of my library career, so you’ll please forgive the reference to Beverly CLEARY, although she’s still a popular kids’ author, after all these years!)

      I just had to “pop in” again—I’m working on a “final project” in my library class (Medical Reference and Research) and my brain needed to “escape” to something Amish that isn’t a book…thus the blog. (Class ends May 10! Ugh!)

      Alice Mary

    7. Marilyn in New York

      Beth, if you are the Beth I think you are. I have read your books and really enjoy them. I can’t wait until your next book comes out. I get my books from the library-I can order them from a group of libraries on my computer. I will be reading your books as them come out.
      Marilyn

    8. Richard

      www.Amishstorys.com

      hey Alice, who says i was plugging anything, thats just normal old me having no shame, lol. Richard from Pennsylvania.

    9. Beth

      Marilyn, you may be thinking of Beth Wiseman, common mistake. I have books out but not my Amish until next May. But either way I’m gald you enjoy Amish stories:) Read on!

    10. Alice Aber

      Wendy, that describes them to a T. You will enjoy the book, I am sure.

      Richard, I was saying you were plugging your blog, LOL. You shameless thing you, LOL. But I love ya anyway!!

      Good night everyone!!

      Blessings, Alice

    11. Al in Ky.

      I was just wondering ....

      Though I have read many books and articles about Amish life, including some by Amish authors, I have never read any Amish
      fiction, so I can’t evaluate and am not meaning to be judgmental. But I was just wondering, have authors of Amish fiction read or studied much about Amish religious faith? In my own experiences with Amish people for over thirty years, I thought I really had a good understanding of Amish life until I read The Amish Way by Kraybill, Nolt and Weaver-Zercher. Their book has really helped me and I now have a different perspective when I visit my Amish friends and experience a little bit of Amish life.

    12. Greg Miller

      Trying Too Hard to Be "Edgy"

      At a recent writers’ meeting in the City, the readers seemed to need expletives to somehow show how edgy they were. I thought that each of the uses I heard jumped out at me in such a way that it took me completely out of the narrative. To me, unless there is a completely solid reason (and there are very few, even though I can think of one)to use an expletive, using it just demonstrates that you have a limited vocabulary, are creatively challenged or are lazy (or all three).

      I think the opposite is completely romanticizing the Amish into perfect Stepford Wives existence as the ideal people. I understand some people’s need to escape, I think most reading is just that, especially since I see the majority of people commuting buried in some sort of reading material- usually not work or job related.

      When my 23-year-old daughter finished reading my novel she remarked that there was no sex and the main characters didn’t take the same tract as if they were cast by Jennifer Aniston and Matthew McConaughey. I wondered if I had absent mindedly written a YA novel (thematically, not structurally because I knew it wasn’t from that standpoint). The funny part was that in the telling of my story, sex never came up. Aspects of Amish courting came into play but they only intersected peripherally with the main plot.

      And I laughed when Newsweek called some of the Amish writing a new hot form of “Bonnet rippers!” I would say that I would be disappointed if a husband of an Amish fiction novel reader accidently picked up my book in Wal-Mart because it was about Amish and baseball and maybe the book [insert shameless plug here] (“The Fastnacht League”) was on the edge of the shelf at the exact middle where the Amish books meet the baseball books. I promise that the cover will not be Fabio with a wide brimmed hat holding a baseball! [but maybe a fastnacht]

    13. Helen Parnell-Berry

      I have read Beverly Lewis and Wanda (can’t remember her name). Whilst I enjoyed their books I realised they were fiction and weren’t really a true representation of Amish people. So, I switched to non fiction and have a sizeable collection of books about the Amish (most recommended by Erik including his own, which was rather brilliant by the way).
      I think that when people read fiction about the Amish they should understand just that, they’re fiction as opposed to real. When anyone here in the UK asks me about the Amish and ask for an author or title where they might learn more I always recommend anything by Donald Kraybill.

    14. Donald Kraybill books

      Helen, you’re right, you won’t go wrong with anything by Donald Kraybill. I was actually just re-reading “Riddle of Amish Culture” and just found it yet again to be very insightful for understanding some of the key questions about the Amish, even after having been through it a number of times.

      But beyond the substance, Don’s style is very readable too, which is one reason I think his books do so well. You can pick them up and really get your head around the Amish without feeling like it’s a textbook. A lot of real-life examples, Amish quotes, and anecdotes as well. Plus a good dash of humor which never hurts!

      And the book by that Erik fella isn’t too bad but I may be biased…(actually I think “rather brilliant” is one of my favorite all-time reviews! though I think you use “brilliant” more freely in the UK, I will consider myself an Einstein at least temporarily here if you’ll allow it, my thanks 😉 )

    15. TomK

      Speaking of this fellow polish brother named Erik, I am actually re-reading your book for the 4th time as I have classified it as a reference book and have used it to take several tips from it pertaining to my own businesses… Ever in Michigan stop by…

    16. Tom, wow–keep that up and you’ll know it better than me 🙂 I’ll be asking you to remind what I was talking about in the customer service chapter or who said this or that…anyway, many thanks for the invite and hope to make a Michigan trip happen, hopefully sooner than later.

    17. Daniel Endy

      I was told that Linda Byler, who is Old Order Amish, writes Amish fiction. It was also stated that she “keeps it real.” I heard it said that she writes with an Amish bishop on her shoulder.

    18. Amish Observer

      I couldn’t resist commenting on the Amish fiction. I have had so many people tell me that they love to read the Amish fiction so that they can understand their culture. I want to scream every time I hear that comment. If you truly want to learn about the Amish, there are many good non-fiction authors out there. You have to be careful though even with non-fiction. There’s an author here in WI that likes to write non-fiction Amish books, but he has a very slanted, romanticized take on them. I get bored with most Amish fiction books quite quickly as the authors try to explain the Amish ways of life rather than just telling a story. The very best non-fiction books that I have read are books written by the Amish themselves. And as Erick mentioned…Donald Kraybill is an excellent author.

    19. Shirley Kratz

      more authors.

      One thing I have found from reading these comments is new authors.Beth I am really looking forward to reading your book next month when it comes out.Fiction or non fiction I like them both.
      Also all the other authors I am looking forward to reading your story to

    20. Greg Miller

      I wanted comment on the fiction aspect without heaping any gasoline on the fire. Fiction is just that. The writer is telling a story and makes the rules. I was told that when you tell a story that you try to be as accurate as you can. I think this is like the warning given to physicians- “first, do no harm” – if you are deliberately inaccurate [or sloppy] you are doing your reader a disservice.

      I think if you want to escape and a have a good read, Amish fisction is fine. If you want explanations, start with the best source material, and I think that would be Hostetler’s “Amish Life.”

      I am starting to think if someone hasn’t read anything about the Amish that reading “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” would be an excellent place to start. Then if someone wants to read Amish fiction, go ahead.

      Otherwise, reading Amish fiction could be like reading Zane Gray westerns and knowing nothing of the history of the American West.
      (By the way, this is what is happening in China right now- they are fascinated by American westerns, especially spaghetti westerns. Can you imagine the mis-information they must be getting – I can’t)

      I think Christina’s list is worth repeating (I personally will be using it as a starting point to try to educate myself to the different styles in this genre)

      Wanda Brunstetter
      Beverly Lewis
      Cindy Woodsmall
      Amy Clipston
      Beth Wiseman
      Suzanne Woods Fisher
      Shelley Shepard Gray
      Kathleen Fuller
      Mindy Starns Clark/Leslie Gould
      Colleen Cobel (has written one fiction book about Amish)
      Carrie Bender (an actual Amish writer)

      If anyone would like to add to this list, please do. I found it refreshing that there is this much material out there, because the mainstream is really ignoring the richness of this subject matter.

      I may have to add a page to my website to list these authors and a list of the best source material in non-fiction, so that when people read my fiction they can then move on to non-fiction to answer any questions. I think it’s also important for an author these days to interact with their readers, as a resource and to explain a deeper meaning of their prose.

      When I put that list on my website I’d appreciate anyone telling me what important writers/influences I may have left off.

    21. Mary Miller

      Levi’s Will, by Dale Cramer, is by far the most authentic “Amish” book I’ve ever read.

    22. Greg Miller

      Thank you for the reference

      I’ll start with this one!

    23. kerry

      What an interesting discussion to someone who is a public librarian and works and lives in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country! lol!

      Does Amish fiction romanticize the Amish? Generally, yes. Is that a problem? No, no really. Depends on who the audience is, and the purpose for reading it.

      We are a busy library, and Amish and inspirational fiction is the second highest circulating part of our collection after (non-inspirational) mystery. I myself am a huge reader of Amish and other inspirational historical fiction. Few Amish actually use the library (more children do, though) but we have extensive Mennonite, other plain, and fundamentalist/religious populations using the library on a regular basis. These are the books they read. Living here, we obviously see the glaring inaccuracies in some of the books – they practically leap off the pages and slap me in the face! lol! But it’s fiction, and going to happen.

      I second the Dale Cramer reference above – not nearly as well known as the previous authors (many – but not all – who tend to write formulaic romances), but well worth a read.

    24. Christine

      They're just another form of romance novel

      I’ve read a few, and they’re generally somewhat trite and happily-ever-after. And being “Amish” generally isn’t the author’s primary intent. It’s not quite that they wrote a story, and then plopped it down in an Amish setting, but it’s just another detail, not central. If you want a scholarly opinion on the phenomenon, Canadian Mennonite published an interesting piece.

      http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/peeking-under-bonnet

    25. Kerry, great to hear a librarian’s perspective. You have a peek into what is in demand. I imagine some of the folks checking these books out are curious about their Plain neighbors.

      Christine, thanks for sharing the Beth Graybill piece. Here is the somewhat extended version that goes into a bit more detail: http://www.mennonitewriting.org/journal/2/4/bonnet-fiction/#page1

      She is quite insightful on the Amish and particularly on the subject of Amish women.

    26. Ed

      Good article in Salon, written by a Mennonite, about Amish fiction:
      http://www.salon.com/2013/03/24/holy_rumspringa_amish_romance_novels_taking_market_by_storm_partner/

      Striking quote: “So if Amish readers are encountering fictional versions of themselves in the pages of Amish fiction, will they begin donning evangelical habits of romance and language of faith? How does a culture change when outsiders launder its most cherished values and practices — community, tradition, simplicity, and “Rumspringa” — and sell them back to the people themselves? Is it possible for a genre of fiction to re-dress a people?”

      Lots of interesting thoughts in the article. Including that Amish would not address each other with “Mr.” or “Mrs.”, something I didn’t know.

    27. There has been a huge gap in the timing of these responses but that still does not make this discuss any less relevant.

      An agent reading my manuscript (among other stinging but salient arguments) said my novel “wasn’t Amish enough.”

      That took me by surprise because I had read most of the nonfiction books, including Kraybill and Hostetler, grew up in Amish country, visited some Lancaster sites firsthand, and then was told that it sounded as though I “cut and pasted” sections to make it seem Amish.

      You could have knocked me over with a Fastnacht. I was shocked. I am still wondering how much more “Amish” I could make it, LOL.

      FYI- previously I mention Hostetler’s landmark book and incorrectly identified the title – it is “Amish Society”

    28. Amy

      Romanticizing?

      I think you get some of both. Let’s face it, fiction writing is about creating compelling characters in whom the reader wants to invest. The ins and outs of 24/7 life must be reduced to mere inches on a page, and in order to be successful, the writer must sell what the reader wants, otherwise, your book will end up unpublished and gathering dust.

      That said, I find that much of the Amish fiction I read (and I have read Linda Byler’s works) are usually a good balance. Sometimes I read one that makes me hate Amish life and sometimes I read one that makes me immediately want to hop the fence of modern life and learn to sew apron-style dresses.

      But mostly, I read books that show both the good and the bad, and since they are written by those who grew up in Amish country or have very close Amish friends, I trust that, though fictionalized, it is a balanced view of the life. And while I love a lifestyle removed from much of the modern world’s dangers, I also know that I could never fit into Amish life.

      If authors were simply romanticizing the Amish, that world would certainly look rosy, and I’d be daily trying to convince my husband to join the Amish. Thankfully, due to the realism of most authors of Amish fiction, he’s saved from actually trying to learn Deutsch, drive a buggy, and grow a beard (it would certainly look odd, since facial hair only grows on one side of his face).

    29. Sumac

      I’m an editor, and sometime writer, by profession. I have read several Amish-type romances, and also some Amish mystery/thrillers (another not uncommon genre). As is true with any genre, there are well-written books, well-researched books, and those not so well-done. There are talented writers, and sloppy ones. There are those more inclined to be authentic, and those that just want to tell a great story out of their own imaginations (regardless how well the individual’s imagination matches to the reality).

      I agree with the comments that the tone of the book reflects what audience it is written for – it is written and sold for commercial purposes, primarily. That’s reality. We are living in an era where readers want fast-reading escapism. Unfortunately, too many readers demand a “HEA” – a happy ending. That, and other factors, have combined to really dumb down the quality of literature in the past few decades. (Some of the greatest, most moving, and most inspiring works of literature in the past have been tragedies.)

      I have noticed, as an editor, that the better-researched books with Amish settings tend to be in the genre of mystery/thriller. I think that these authors are 1) traditionally more interested in creating authentic settings and more inclined to do meticulous research in order to present finer details, and 2) less inclined to deal in rainbows and unicorns: they don’t shy away from the gritty, dark, even uncomfortable – this leads them to present a more balanced, realistic picture of the Amish and less romanticized.

      On a personal note, I feel that it is a moral obligation, out of respect for the Amish, to present them as they are – neither romanticized nor demonized. I would love to see this in every novel about them. But alas, the truth is that as there are many authors with many personal interpretations and motives, there are also many types of Amish settlements, and any ‘truth’ of it is often very difficult to arrive at through research. With that in mind, I’m not sure that we as readers can fault any author for not telling the story exactly as we ourselves would. Additionally, the Amish are a rich, complex culture, and getting every little detail right is difficult if not impossible.

      I read with an editor’s sometimes overly-critical eye – even when I try to read simply for pleasure – and so I am annoyed by little inaccuracies (as I see them) and it’s a rare book that doesn’t contain a few. If the book is free of a lot of structurally bad writing, free of bad grammar and spelling, and it’s clear the author made an effort to do some research into the Amish world – I feel I need to give it a pass. But when I read a book with sloppy research (missing the boat on the more widely publicized customs of Amish life), or worse one that either paints them as backward/ignorant/farm-animal-beating/wife-abusers or as angels on earth, I get pretty offended on their behalf.

      I have read a book here and there, and I’m not one to say much in that genre, but I do like Beverly Lewis (there is one that was surprisingly bad, but I read perhaps 5 or 6 very good ones) – she is a competent to good writer, depending upon the book, and I do feel she is generally well-informed and makes an effort to be so. Like many Amish genre writers, though, she tends to understand one region (in her case the Amish of Lancaster County, where even “Old Order” can mean more liberal than in other parts of the U.S.) and wouldn’t write other communities well.

      I live for the day someone writes a good literary novel, with a great conflict and nice pace, beautiful imagery and language, and treats the Amish as what they are – fascinating, deeply Christian, complex human beings, who sometimes make horrible mistakes, and sometimes do wonderful selfless things, trying to make it in a hostile world like the rest of us.

    30. Sumac

      Found it!

      I had to laugh when I remembered the last paragraph to my post above:

      “I live for the day someone writes a good literary novel, with a great conflict and nice pace, beautiful imagery and language, and treats the Amish as what they are – fascinating, deeply Christian, complex human beings, who sometimes make horrible mistakes, and sometimes do wonderful selfless things, trying to make it in a hostile world like the rest of us.”

      Well, I’ve found it. I am reading a book by Serena B. Miller, and I wanted to stop by here and highly recommend her to everyone. She is a pastor’s wife, grew up in Ohio Amish country, and is a personal and close friend to several Amish families. She writes of Old Order and Schwarzentruber Amish with a degree of detail and authenticity that I have not encountered. Also, speaking as an editor, she is a superb writer. Her book is rich, complex, musical, well-structured and well-edited. And it’s a bang-up great story that treats Amish culture with respect and realism – neither misrepresenting, demonizing, nor romanticizing. Really a treat to read.