Valerie Weaver-Zercher on the Amish romance novel
Over the past decade, Amish fiction–and in particular the romance novel–has boomed in popularity.
Valerie Weaver-Zercher joins us today to discuss the genre, including the history of the Amish romance (not as new as you might think), who reads–and writes–Amish romances, and what Amish think about them.
Valerie is a writer and editor whose work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Christianity Today, Sojourners, and other venues.
She’ll be delivering a lecture talk on the history of the Amish romance this coming Thursday (Nov. 17) at the Young Center at Elizabethtown College (details below).
Thanks to Valerie for answering a few questions on the Amish romance genre. I think you’ll enjoy this:
Amish America: We, or at least I, tend to think of the Amish romance novel as a recent phenomenon. How far back in history does the Amish romance novel go? Is there a certain book or books which initiated the genre?
Valerie Weaver-Zercher: You’re not the only one, Erik. A lot of people are surprised to hear that the first Amish romance novel was actually published in 1905, over ninety years before Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning appeared.
Helen Reimensnyder Martin’s Sabina: A Story of the Amish was the first Amish romance novel to appear in the market. Martin’s writing, called “local color writing” or “regional fiction,” portrayed the Amish (and, in her other books, Mennonites and other Pennsylvania Dutch) as peculiar, backward, rather unintelligent people: inbred, oppressive, and opposed to progress and freedom of all kinds.
Three years after Martin’s novel appeared, Cora Gottschalk Welty’s The Masquerading of Margaret offered an inverse portrayal of the Amish. Welty’s Amish were exemplary, and her main character, a socialite from New York who comes to stay with Amish relatives for a time, becomes changed by the purity and goodness of the Amish.
Neither of these books contained the evangelical Christian spirituality that most of the current Amish-themed romance novels do. A few more Amish romance novels were published in the first half of the twentieth century, but not until the 1960s did an Amish novel appear on the market that included a devotional engine to the plot.
Clara Bernice Miller’s books, published by Mennonite publisher Herald Press (with several reprinted by Moody Press), emphasized the personal salvation narratives of her protagonists, thus introducing what has become an emblem of the field: evangelical piety. Miller’s books included The Crying Heart and Katie.
There are lots of other examples of twentieth-century Amish romance novels, especially titles released by Miller’s publisher Herald Press in the 1980s—too many to mention here! These twentieth-century Amish novels may be buried beneath the avalanche of contemporary ones on the market today, but they do exist, and demonstrate that literary affection for the Amish existed long, long before 1997.
What sorts of themes have commonly appeared in the Amish romance novel?
The role of evangelical Christian piety in the plots and themes can’t be overstated, at least in most of the contemporary Amish novel field. Most Amish romance novels, with few exceptions, reside within the genre of inspirational fiction, and as such, the devotional arc of the stories is absolutely central. The protagonist’s faith development is, in many books, as crucial as the romance that emerges.
What differentiates it from mainstream romance writing?
Certainly the chasteness of the romantic narrative is a marker of Amish fiction. Although the term “bonnet ripper” has become a popular and jazzy way to refer to the novels, they have little in common with the arousing “bodice ripper” that the reference calls to mind.
Of course, “mainstream romance writing” itself has splintered in many directions, and now includes quite clean narratives with none of the erotic overtones assumed to be present in the prototypical Harlequin at the end of the cereal aisle. And the contemporary Amish novel is changing quite a bit as well, moving from evangelical audiences and into general markets and going in all sorts of directions (suspense, cozy mysteries, paranormal, etc.). Still, most Amish romance novels would contain, as I said, a devotional element that sets it apart from the typical general romance.
Who has traditionally been the audience for this genre? And the writers?
Great questions. Both audience and writer profiles have changed. For those early twentieth-century Amish romance novels, one scholar has pointed out that the readers were largely white, privileged Americans coping with rapid industrialization, people who had only recently gained time for such leisure pursuits as fiction-reading and who were interested in narratives of rustic, traditional societies.
Then, with Mennonite publisher Herald Press being a major producer of Amish novels for many years between the 1960s and 1990s, the writers and audience would have been primarily Mennonites and other Anabaptists. And now, the audience and writers of Amish romance fiction are largely white, evangelical Protestant women interested in a “clean” or “gentle” read—although every time I start to think I have a handle of Amish fiction’s readership, I discover another exception to that rule!
What do Amish think about Amish romance novels?
I’ve heard the whole gamut of responses from Amish people about the novels, from Amish folks who like the books to those who are critical of them. Many Amish people I’ve spoken with are aware of the books, curious and a little befuddled about why they’re so popular, but not particularly affectionate or offended by them.
What will you discuss in your upcoming Young Center lecture? Can you share details for anyone who’d like to attend?
In my lecture I’ll trace the genealogy—literally—of the contemporary Amish romance novel, going into more detail than I have here. I’ll be naming some of the ancestral relatives of the subgenre, including a perhaps surprising choice of the “mother” of Amish fiction, as well as some “feuding uncles” and “wayward cousins” of Amish romance fiction.
As far as details: my lecture, “Thrill of the Chaste: Tracing the Ancestry of the Amish Romance Novel,” will be Thursday, November 17, at 7:30 pm, at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.
More info on Valerie’s lecture at the Young Center website.
Am Inerested in Opinions
Very good interview Erik! Wish I could go hear her lecture.
On the discussin forum of the ministry to Amish, professed Christians see the Amish Romance Novel writers as responsible almost for sending Amish to hell. Reason being, the concensus is there that Amish aren’t saved, therefore, Amish Romance Novel writers are painting the picture that the Amish is neat & tidy life, going to heaven, & no one knows their problems because of this. I have known Christian women verbally pushing their aggravation at the novel writers for this. It is because they know the young ones that have left that have been hurt by shunning.
I know some former Amish post on here, I am looking forward to viewpoints from others.
I for one, having read several Amish novels, found that is where I learned about some of the problems that DO exist in Amish communities. But I also am not in agreement that they are all in need of leaving the Amish in order to go to heaven-
Valerie, you were wondering how those of us who are former Amish feel about the Amish fiction. You summed up my thoughts exactly on the “themes.” Many of the authors seem to have an agenda -to have the protagonist become “saved.” I am basing this on Beverly Lewis’s first three novels… back then when they were mostly alone on the market, I thought I should know what’s on the market about Amish life and so I read them.
Having said that, I don’t read enough of these novels to have an informed opinion. I’ve once given my opinion of the first five pages of a book once when someone asked me what I thought:
There is actually one Amish novel that does get the details right, because it’s written by a former Amish person and it deals with some hefty issues: “A Separate God” by Lucinda Sreicker-Schmidt.
I have a question for Valerie Weaver-Zercher. Do you enjoy reading the novels? You must have to read a great many for your research. How do you keep them all straight? They sound so similar in theme to me. And how do you feel about the conversion theme in many of them?
I suppose my feelings about these books can be summed up with the word “indifference.” They don’t seem to have anything to do with my experience of having grown up in the culture.
Have read and enjoyed a few Amish books, but can’t help wondering what the Amish themselves think about them? Somehow, I believe they’d be less then thrilled.
Hi Linda, it’s something I wonder often as well–I don’t know if you caught the 2nd-to-last question above, but according to Valerie it sounds like response from the Amish is mixed. In my more limited experience with Amish fiction, I’ve heard the same.
Good Morning, Erik! Yes, I did see that comment. Even though the books are fictional, I just sometimes feel that the Amish are not accurately portrayed in some books. And I guess in a way my feelings come from how we (the Hutterites) are sometimes portrayed by people who don’t really understand our way of life…
Thanks Linda, I can only imagine. On that note, are you (or anyone else) aware of any Hutterite-themed fiction?
Right now I can think of two by Hugh Alan Smith: When Lightening Strikes and When the River Calls. There may be others that I’m not aware of.
Sorry, but i just realized I could send this link, should others be interested: http://stagewrite.freeyellow.com/lightning.html
As a Plain Christian, though not Amish or Mennonite, I find the novels offensive. Anabaptism falls into the “Orthodox” category of Christianity, which disagrees entirely with the Calvinist/evangelical doctrine of election. (“Once saved, always saved;” if one has not a personal experience of spiritual baptism, one is not saved.) I am seeing that the undercurrent of evangelical theology in these novels is unconsciously affecting the Amish and Mennonites who read them or who spend enough time with outsiders that they pick up on the theological expectation. It was not too long ago that the stricter bishops would not have allowed such reading, and they prohibited members of their districts from attending or holding Bible studies that would introduce non-Anabaptist theology.
Is it that the bishops aren’t aware of the undercurrents?
Valerie -Weaver-Zercher on Amish novel
The Bishops are aware of the Amish novels, and are not impressed with the books on shunning and such.
I would say the Media is thinking the Bishop can make a rule as a teacher can when teaching school… not true.
A Bishop works with the church body and can try to discourage such reading, but I know of no church that would make a deal out of it.
Some of the Amish do read these books, but I know of some that don’t. There are some authors that are way off ‘the real deal’. I respect the ones that aren’t converting the characters from Amish to English or making it sound like a women can’t step outdoors without asking her husband if she may. I enjoy reading them.
Amish Bishops' roles and stereotypes
Mary, thanks for bringing up this point about Bishops.
As you note, the way it is commonly presented in media is that the church leadership, primarily via the Bishop, decides what is going to fly and what isn’t.
As I understand it is a bit more complicated than that, though the Bishop has his share of influence. But Bishops may feel pressure from their membership as well.
Of course, I don’t really need to tell you all this! But I am not surprised that Bishop’s authority is imagined in this domineering mold. I can also see how the figure of the heavy-handed, all-powerful Bishop could be useful in driving a plot forward.
A good PA Amish friend usually has a good chuckle when that stereotype comes up in conversation. Not that people’s personalities don’t come through, like in anything. Or that human foibles can lead people to act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t, were it not for the position they occupy.
I don’t know if we have any Amish Bishops regularly reading Amish America, but if you’re out there, let us know 🙂
I appreciate your posts. You said the Amish, being Anabaptist fall into the Orthodox category. This explains partially, why I get such conflicting understandings of their salvation understanding, I believe. However, my good friend who is Eastern Orthodox, does not see Anabaptism as Orthodox-actually, just another branch of the Protestant religions. The more I learn of church history, the more I understand the Amish view of their salvation understanding. So, I have met alot of Amish as of late in Holmes County OH area who now refer to themselves as Born Again, yet still remain plain in dress & still follow scripture on headcovering.
So trying to reconcile your comment with this-would your background of scripture interpretation see this as a negative change in the Amish coming? I hope I’m making sense.
I Read Them All!
Since I live in the middle of Silicon Valley, Amish fiction is my innocent escape. I pace myself, so as not to live in the fantasy world of these books, as I have done before. I have read enough Amish non fiction to have a realistic point of view of their lifestyles. If I had a choice, and I have found a few of such books, I would leave out the over done romantics and read books that point out real Amish lives. However, the romantic books are innocent enough for us city dwellers who don’t have the fortunate privilege of living where the acres stretch out and the rolling green hills give us fresh air and open skies. I hope that the genre takes a turn towards realism, and it does seem to be getting better along those lines.
Very interesting interview! I appreciated it a lot. I am not a big fan of Amish fiction as I have stated before, I find them way too goody goody. I am interested in the phenomenon though and this gave a new perspective.
Love Amish Fiction...
I’ve read more than 100 Amish fiction books, and as soon as a new one comes out, I try to get my hands on it. They are, as Diane put it, my innocent escape.
Some of the books are “goody goody,” where as others share a darker/realistic struggle (whether spiritually, emotionally, mentally, or physically). And not all the books have the Calvanist/evangelical theme…it just depends on the author and how true they stay to the Amish faith and struggles they face. (Although, I was under the impression that some of the new order Amish did stray from the more Orthodox beliefs, to a more Calvanistic belief–could be completely wrong though).
Oh. And just for the record, I don’t limit my reading of the Amish to just fiction…I’ve read probably a dozen or more non-fiction books about them too.
Valerie-Weaver-Zercher Amish novel
Don’t believe the non-fiction books unless they are written by an Amish person. I have found some huge un-truths in those.
This past weekend my wife and I were in Ohio and Indiana, we live in North Dakota, for a “Health and Nutrition Conference. We and about 20 Amish from Ohio and Indiana attended “The Confession A New Musical” adapted from the novel by Beverly Lewis at the Blue Gate Theater in Shipshewana, IN. It was both sad and funny. The cast did a great job. The Amish friends that we were with said afterward,”It isn’t quite accurate” but I think they mostly enjoyed the musical. The cast did a great job and the music was well done.
One of our friends, Marlene Miller, Holmes County, Ohio has recently written her autobiography entitled “Grace Leads Me Home, From Head Majorette to Old Order Amish”. She being English , became Amish and has continued there since their marriage. This is her story about her love for the Lord, her love for Johnny, their 10 children. The book includes some of the joys and struggles they have had in their lives. I consider it a great read. (Maybe I’m quite partial since we are good friends) We stayed with them last week and enjoyed it very much.
English depictions of Amish
Great relations here Ralph. I think I had heard of Marlene. I was going to attend Confession with an Amish friend in Lancaster on this last trip, but it didn’t work out time-wise.
I am always fascinated to get the Amish reaction to their depictions by “us English”. We have done that at least once already. Not being Amish or a member of a distinct minority group experiencing heavy outside attention, I can only imagine it in an abstract way.
I’ve picked up books on the Amish and the anabaptist religion. I’ve gotten most of my information about the real Amish from a cousin that lives among them.
I have read some of the Amish novels and some I like and others are just to fake. Growing up in the country and my heart still there, although living in the city. I love reading these books as it kind of takes me home again.
There are always truths and untruths to every novel or book on religion and other groups of people. Just have to know the real people to know what they are really like and not idolize them into something else.
Thanks for putting up this interview, Erik. Very interesting and insightful.
I don’t read much Amish related fiction. I’ve just never found it. I have however watched the odd film here and there.
I wonder if you could write a blog entry about the experience of selling Success Made Simple. I’d be curious to read about your experiences selling your own book as it compares to selling those of others. Toot your own horn a little, Erik.
Success Made Simple
Same here, that could be an interesting post.
Selling my book
Shom, Linda, flattered you asked. I don’t know that I’ve done a post yet pin-pointed to the question of selling the book, but I do talk about the book creation process and the overall experience in a couple of posts. In this first one from last year I answered 54 reader questions, some about Amish business, some about the book itself:
The good Rich Stevick did a nice profile which appeared in the Amish publication Pinecraft Pauper; it’s also not exactly on the “selling the book” topic, but hits on the borders of it at least:
As for promoting the book, I was fortunate to get some major media coverage early on (NY Post, CNNMoney, Time), which is nice b/c it gives you a blast in sales. But it’s not something that lasts in perpetuity–you have to huff it to keep the book out there and visible to your potential buyers. I did some radio, speaking appearances, guest blog posts, interviews, in addition to traditional media. It was (and still is) a learning curve.
I find it intersting to read about these novels, and particularly how the current crop of Amish novels often have evangelical themes portrayed in an Amish setting. Another example of how cultures can mix together in odd and unexpected ways.
Velerie mentions a Menonite publisher that published Amish fiction from the 1960’s through the 1990’s. I wonder what Amish and Plain authors currently write about?
The Amish Romance Novel
First, I am very upset that I can’t make the lecture. I only learned of it through Amish America. I think it’s a great idea but I’d suggest that a better idea would be a panel discussion of two or three Amish romance writers, maybe a publisher or two and/or an agent and a discussion of who reads these and why and how accurate and authentic these novels are.
The standard answer is that the novel is fiction so the writer does make the rules.
I believe that the writer has a responsibility to be as accurate as possible in portraying the plot because I think it would be a disservice to twist a tenant of the religion just to make a plot point easier to write or achieve.
I have written what I have been calling a “secular” Amish novel – not a romance and not designed to “drive readers to the pews.” My portrayal of the Amish was that they are hard-working people living their life within a code meant to keep them self-sufficient and lead a good, wholesome life. By no making it a book with an
evangelical engine” I hoped I hadn’t excluded readers who would never pick up a “religious-related book” and I also did not want write just another tome with one of the four main Amish plot lines.
My objective was to use the book to explain that what the outsider considers to be odd or strange can be easily explained within the context of how the practice evolved and therefore, dispel the myths.
Beta readers have been fascinated, so far, and I have agents now asking for partials and synopses.
But, I am immediately thrown into the “Bonnet Ripper” category and spend much of my time explaining that I’m not writing “Amish Romance.”
I view my book as an alternative source of Amish information, without the romance but with depictions of Amish life. In it are a service, a wedding, and courtship, explained through the course of the plot.
This is the second posting within the past year on the Amish novel and I am fascinated and interesting in all things relating to it.
Thanks for the interview and seriously think about a panel discussion (maybe advertised well in advance. I am trying to think how I can get from Manhattan to between Harrisburg and Lancaster on a Thursday night by 7:30. My wife will think I’m crazy to spend about three hours in a car to every hour at the lecture!
If anyone would like to beta read my book, please feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org. I will soon know if I have to ePublish this in various electronic formats but right now it in a WORD document, 88,000 words. The book has a Facebook page:
Please forgive the shameless plug 🙂
Assessing Amish fiction accuracy
Greg, congrats on the work and good progress. Sounds like you have been hard at it. It’s interesting to hear you seem to be taking things in a different direction than the more standard approaches to Amish fiction.
I like your idea of the panel, but to be frank for my money I’d rather hear Valerie speak, in terms of getting a top-down look at what Amish fiction is all about.
I have friends in Amish writing, and I think they take pains to do a good job at portraying things accurately. But at the same time it seems like you are more apt to get an objective look at things like accuracy from someone outside the industry–though I’m sure writers, agents and publishers will have a good handle on who their readers are. But, say, a publisher has an incentive to promote something as being accurate, b/c odds are that if given the choice the reading public will prefer their reading to be accurate over inaccurate.
Not that I’m saying that these folks are misrepresenting, but that the interest and temptation to portray something as authentic is going to be there given the reality of what readers want. I know Valerie has read and researched more than enough to know the genre but without that same interest. I expect her talk is going to be an insightful and interesting one.
@ Greg Miller Kudos to you for saying: “I believe that the writer has a responsibility to be as accurate as possible in portraying the plot because I think it would be a disservice to twist a tenant of the religion just to make a plot point easier to write or achieve.”
I’m writing a novel, not Amish fiction, but one that will have two characters who are former Amish who are now living in the world but maintaining much of their Amish traditions. My cabinet-furniture maker will hold to the old tradition of hand working and finishing the woods used in the pieces he makes; even though they are now outside the church he and his family will hold dearly to many of the Amish family traditions and religious beliefs. It’s incumbent on me to research those traditions so I do get it right.
I agree with Lee Ann – it seems there are so many authors now and there are “truths and untruths to every novel or book on religion”. I think it’s as hard to make a generalized statement about the fiction books as it is to make about the Amish in general – it’s a pretty broad spectrum. It’s funny because the church I go to is St. Sabina and a friend knew I enjoyed Amish things and bought me that book: Sabina, a Story of the Amish. It’s definitely not like any other Amish fiction I’ve read and is kind of creepy, but it was a great gift to get for the name and Amish in it if nothing else. 🙂
Beth your comment that it is “kind of creepy” intrigued me–I wondered if you meant for its portrayal of Amish, or something referring to the coincidence you mentioned (or something else). I have not read Sabina .
Hi Erik – By creepy, I just meant the storyline. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it but I vaguely remember she saw shadows or a strange face of some kind or saw premonitions or something like that, and a strange look would come over her. The way they spoke reminded me of a bunch of hillbillies so it was hard to read (“I’m goin’ fur to fetch the water” – stuff like that). And actually considering when it was written, if they didn’t say they were Amish it would be hard to tell because most people lived like them back in the early 1900s. Let me know if you want to borrow it, it’s just sitting on my shelf. 🙂
What my Amish son, Mark thinks.
I read this and wondered what my Amish son, Mark, thinks about Amish romances. Well, I don’t want to offend anybody but he doesn’t much care for them and he doesn’t know of any Amish that do. He considers it just another example of non-Amish exploiting the Amish people, for their own gain. According to Mark, what really perturbs him is when authors like Beverly Lewis are interviewed as authorities on the Amish. He says that is the equivalent of interviewing G.K. Chesterton as an authority on the Roman Catholic Church because he wrote the Father Brown mysteries. Mark says, if you want an authority on the Amish, ask an Amishman. I know Mark got an Amish romance book from his sister for a Christmas present. She thought he would like it because it had an Amish woman and a buggy on the cover. He told me it went in the paper recycling bin and that was the best use anybody could get out of it. I told you he didn’t care for them.
Converts' response to Amish portrayals?
Don, thank you for passing on word from Mark–as Valerie noted above, responses from Amish to Amish fiction have been mixed! I think we can put Mark in the “no, thanks” category 🙂
It did raise an interesting question, given that your son is a convert to the Amish–are people who join the Amish more likely to find portrayals (like Amish fiction, films, etc) of Amish offensive, given where they are coming from? Something of the zeal of the convert?
For anyone wondering, here is a post where Don shares the story (Don’s son Mark was a later-in-life convert to an Amish church): https://amishamerica.com/joining-the-amish-after-50/
Thanks to everyone for your comments! I won’t be able to answer all your questions or respond to all your ideas, but I’ll try to respond to a few.
First, I should say that I’m writing a book about Amish fiction in general, so my lecture on Thursday night represents just a portion of my research. And yes, Saloma, I have read quite a few of the novels by now. I could talk about my personal responses to them (which varied a great deal depending on which novel I was reading), but in my book, I’m looking much less at any inherent “quality” of the novels, or even whether they’re formulaic or not, and more at the ways that the books function in the lives of loyal readers. That is, what are the cultural and religious tasks that the books perform in the lives of readers? And what is it about this particular historical moment that is fueling the genre? In my book I’ll give some personal reflections on the novels, but am focusing more on trying to answer these questions, based largely on interviews with readers.
And on the theme of conversion in the novels: since I have almost an entire chapter on this topic, I won’t go into any detail here. But I will say that while some of the novels portray protagonists’ spiritual narratives as journeys from an unsaved state to a saved one, many of the novels assume their heroine’s “salvation” from the start, such that the devotional aspect is from immature faith to more mature faith.
I’m sure there are comments/questions I’m missing. Thanks again for all your comments, and carry on!
Valerie, what I want to know is when we’ll get the chance to read your book 🙂
Your top 5 Amish Fiction Books
To those who have read from the Amish Fiction genre, could you reply with a list of your favorite five (5) titles in the genre that you’ve read? Just trying to gauge what is out there.
Shom this would make an interesting survey. In terms of Amish fiction, how many genres (or is it sub-genres) are we talking about? I would think romance, mystery…inspirational? (not sure if I’d know how to classify that one)
As I work in a Christian bookstore, I’m able to borrow and read new books as they come out. I tend to read anything Amish related that we get. What I find interesting is the background of the writers and the recent explosion of writers who have turned to the Amish fiction realm.
Beverly Lewis is probably our most popular author in this genre still and I have to admit, I look forward to new books from her as well! When you read her compared to other authors, her books aren’t as flowery and her characters seem to deal with tougher problems. BUT, look at where she’s writing from and her family background–her grandmother was raised in the Old Order Mennonite and was not welcome in the family home after she married her husband (see “The Beverly Lewis Amish Heritage Cookbook” for this information.) So, I find those themes of disenchantment with the Amish church and shunning running through her stories.
Would there be a resource for reading Ms. Weaver-Zercher’s lecture?
I’m not sure when you’ll be able to read my book. I’m submitting my manuscript to a publisher fairly soon, but the publication process can take a long time. I’ll be sure to let you know, Erik, when it comes out! The question of how many subgenres (or sub-sub-genres?) of Amish fiction there are is an interesting one. There are definitely several categories (within inspirational Amish)emerging: Amish cozy mysteris, Amish suspense romance, Amish historical, and several others. Then there are also a host of Amish-themed categories that lie outside the inspirational romance genre.
Merry, I don’t plan on publishing my lecture at this point, since it tracks fairly closely to one of my chapters. Closer to the time that my book appears I may try to get pieces published, but at this point, the lecture won’t be available anywhere to read. Sorry!
There is Hope, Patience and Time
Thanks for your reply 🙂 I have an abundance of the first and second and can only hope for the third 😉
From the perspective of an "Ex-er"
Interesting! I’ll look forward to reading Weaver-Zercher’s book when it comes out!
I was raised as an Amish Mennonite (i.e., Beachy Amish) minister’s daughter, but left the tradition when I was 21. About that time, Beverley Lewis’ books were becoming popular. I read the first two or three out of morbid curiosity, but quickly became disenchanted. My take is that this genre tells you far more about the mainstream, evangelical readers (and how THEY wish to see the Amish) than about the Amish themselves. Lewis is tone-deaf to the nuances of Amish social and cultural conventions; living near an Amish community (or having an Amish great-grandmother) doesn’t make her an expert any more than going into McDonald’s makes you a hamburger, to use an out worn comparison.
Of course it doesn’t help that I have two English degrees and am working on a third. From that perspective, my critique is not that Lewis is writing “low-brow” fiction, but that she is exploiting a sub-culture for the economic and self-indulgent interests of the mainstream. She invents traditions and creates implausible scenarios for the entertainment of the readers, not because these situations reflect lived Amish experiences.
And I’m not alone. Here’s a very gentle rant about Beverly Lewis, written by a REAL Mennonite author: http://dorcassmucker.blogspot.com/2011/07/another-amish-novel-rantcritique.html
That said, some outsiders have done an amazing job picking up on the spoken and unspoken socio-cultural cues. When Jodi Picoult researched her novel _Plain Truth_ she only spent two weeks’ living with an Amish family. Yet in her book she describes social norms that I had never thought about (but instantly recognized). So it can be done–but happens rarely.
Naomi, well said! Of the Beverly Lewis books, I read, I so heartily agree about her being tone-deaf to the nuances of Amish life. And I could never have put it so succinctly about exploiting the Amish for the interests of the mainstream. I have that criticism about Sue Bender’s book “Plain and Simple.” And I don’t think we should rule out the influence her book had on the perception of the Amish, which helped make the ground fertile for Beverly Lewis’s books several years later. (Sue Bender’s book was published in 1991 and Beverly Lewis’s first book, “The Shunning” was published in 1997.) Talking about exploiting the Amish for her own gain… oh my! Rather than ranting, I’ll give a link to what I had to say about her book when someone asked me: http://aboutamish.blogspot.com/2011/05/plain-and-not-so-simple.html
I agree that Jodi Picoult got most things right in her book “Plain Truth.” Though, there were things that seemed to pertain to the Amish in Lancaster, a community whose nuances I know little about, so I couldn’t always tell whether she had gotten the nuances. But when she used the word “Gelassenheit” I said, “Aha! she has done her research too well!”
When I was doing an internship with Dr. Donald Kraybill, he had me read his already-published book, “Amish Riddle” for things that might differ in my home community. About the tenth time I came across that word, I said, “What is this word Gelassenheit? I never even heard that word when I was Amish.” He explained that it is the German word that best describes the Amish way of “giving up” one’s own ways for those of the community. So I believe that this word was introduced by the researchers. Jodi demonstrated she’d read the research when she used it.
Thank you, Naomi, for your insightful comments.
Started with non-fiction on Amish/ Anabaptist – such as by Kraybill, Nolt, Hostetler,etc – (and still do)in order to learn about others. This started about eight years ago when I worked with a local Amish family.
Read the non-fiction (well, save the mysteries and violence focused ones) as an escape from the world I live in. It is like a mental massage – an aaahhhh, a sigh, and an mmmmm to give me a goody-goody/ clean break… and, on occasion, I find there just might be a principle I need to pay attention to or that applies to my life at that moment. I usually average about one a week though this is getting to be a little too expensive (though Kindle has helped)… I also pass the hard copies around – including to a woman who left her Amish community when she was a younger woman.
when I don’t like what I read – whether I find it critical of a culture, too unrealistic, offensive to my spirit, or whatever – I close the book, quit reading, skip ahead, make note not to read that author, whatever. it is similar to a television or radio, etc – I have the power to choose; I also need only to make the choice based on my perspectives/beliefs – not on the opinion of others. There are many books out there that are critical of others faith/ culture/ whatever and based on falsehoods and, they will sell and be read… I just decide whom and what I want to support.
My favorite Amish fiction books are those by Jerry Eicher, Dale Cramer, and Linda Byler. My top favorite right now would have to be Paradise Valley by Dale Cramer, then all the rest tied!
I just want to mention Linda Byler who seems to be the only Amish woman writing Amish novels.