“Are they accurate?” In Thrill of the Chaste, Valerie Weaver-Zercher observes that the question of factual accuracy was the most frequently asked of her during her research. It’s one which, she explains in a late chapter of the book, she was reluctant, for various reasons, to address.
She does cover the issue in much depth, though. One quote in support of Amish fiction authors:
Many novelists of Amish fiction demonstrate impressive knowledge of the Amish, their practices, and the distinctions between Amish settlements. One Amish person wrote to Wanda Brunstetter that it was hard for her to believe that Brunstetter wasn’t Amish herself, so authentic did her books feel, and an Amish reviewer wrote in the Connection, a periodical with a primarily Amish audience, “Wanda, you have definitely done your homework and I can tell you have a feel for our community.” The authors I spoke with were both solemnly committed to extensive research and humble about any claims to exhaustive knowledge of Amish life.
Those research sources include Amish people, non-fiction academic books, Amish publications, and first hand observation.
Authenticity is clearly of importance to authors, based on the efforts they make to verify accuracy, and then convey these efforts to readers. Credibility comes, most commonly, through “the vetting of a manuscript with an Amish informant or friend before (or in some cases after) the book goes to press.”
Having written non-fiction on the Amish, I can understand the feeling that you need to do this. In addition to catching mistakes, I suppose it acts as a sort of “credibility cover”, though you can’t place the onus on the Amish reader to identify all your errors.
On the other hand, an Amish reader points to the challenges inherent for non-Amish writers in an Amish literary landscape:
One Amish woman who reads prepublication manuscripts for an Amish-fiction author suggested to me that although it’s easy to fix small inaccuracies, such as details of dress or technology use in her community, it’s more difficult to help an author create authentic-feeling dialogue and practices, a character’s thought life, or a community’s ethos.
There is a lot more to this discussion in Thrill of the Chaste than I can do justice to here, such as issues with how certain cultural/religious practices are portrayed. I’ll just share one of Valerie’s conclusions when it comes to minor errors:
In fact, it is likely that Amish fiction clears up more popular misconceptions than it creates…if readers walk away thinking that the Amish in Lancaster County drive black buggies instead of gray, or that Amish people write letters in Pennsylvania German than in English, has any real harm been done? To the extent that readers of these novels are looking for an “Amishish” experience rather than a watertight nonfiction analysis, the subgenre, in general, delivers.
I’ve also wondered whether a perfectly accurate depiction of Amish life is even the point. I would think readers would approach the novels with a similar mindset. Based on people’s comments, it sounds like there are other, more powerful reasons for reading Amish fiction, including personal inspiration and for the values the books convey.
What do you think?