I’m proudly from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and as I’m known to say, so were my nine prior generations. All farmers. All Mennonites. Til my dad left the church. So of course I’ve written about the Amish and am always watching for good journalism on my home county and people. It seems the Amish are having a moment, but perhaps, as Brook Wilensky-Lanford reminds me, the Amish are always having a moment. Here are excerpts from a few recent stories on Amish and Mennonites.
From Rachel Yoder’s February “Love in Amish Country” for Paris Review:
The only items there truly unfamiliar to me were two wire racks full of paperbacks, their covers each backlit with the golden glow of God’s everlasting presence and bucolic perfection: wheat fields, corn fields, rivers and barns beneath cerulean or honey skies. A plain-clothed woman in some state of muted emotional duress gazed into the middle distance beneath her white bonnet. I spun through the racks, elated, repulsed. Could there be anything better, or worse, than Amish romance novels?
“Oh yes, people love them,” my uncle said. “They’re very popular.”
I picked the only one I could have possibly purchased, titled Rachel’s Secret, and left with this as the one keepsake from my conflicted return to Amish country. Fitting.
I started reading Rachel’s Secret, a book set in 1855 that tells the tale of a young Amish widow whose simple life is thrown into turmoil one stormy night when a wounded riverboat captain shows up at her door, but I didn’t get very far. While I found lines like “Rachel’s memory book wasn’t stored in her chest of drawers but in her heart” comically wonderful, the appeal of such saccharine prose quickly soured. “Once I picked up an Amish romance novel in the library,” my father—who grew up Amish before his family switched to a less conservative Mennonite church—wrote me after I’d asked him if he’d ever read one, “[but] found the language uninteresting and dead.” Exactly.
Yesterday Valerie Weaver-Zercher (who’s writing a book about bonnet books) wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Bonnet Rippers: The Rise of the Amish Romance Novel.”
In 2012, a new Amish romance novel appeared on the market about every four days. Sixty more were published in 2012 than in 2009, and 83 more than in 2002. The top three Amish-fiction authors — Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall — have sold a combined total of more than 24 million books.
As a subgenre of inspirational Christian fiction, Amish romance novels’ commercial success has garnered the attention of The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, and ABC’s Nightline, most of which have pointed out their largely evangelical female readership. One blogger suggested that the readers are “non-Amish religious women who somehow wish they could be even more repressed by a traditional Western religion than they already are.” Others are more sanguine. A marketer for one of the Christian publishing houses characterized the readers of their Amish-fiction author as evangelical women in their 50s and 60s. “These are not hipsters,” he said. “They’re very Christian, very ministry-oriented. There is lots of church talk in line [at book signings]. It’s sort of that rural, Saturday Evening Post crowd.”
And unlike the audience for reality series like TLC’s Breaking Amish or the Discovery Channel’s Amish Mafia, readers of these novels don’t want to see their Amish wasted, tattooed, touring sex museums, swearing, or packing heat. They want chaste heroines, tender heroes, devotional content, and maybe the suspense of a family secret or a forbidden Amish-English love. Amish romance novels offer readers three dimensions of chastity: chaste narratives about chaste protagonists living within a subculture that is itself impeccably chaste, refusing seduction by the car, public-grid electricity, phones in the house, higher education, and modern fashion. Despite the suggestion by some that the appeal of Amish fiction must lie in the arousal of coverings coming off, or suspenders being suspended — hence the coy industry term “bonnet rippers” — most Amish novels are as different from Fifty Shades of Grey as a cape dress is from a spiked collar. A line from Cindy Woodsmall’s When the Heart Cries is about as erotic as it gets: “The longer he stood so close to her, the stronger the need to kiss her lips became. But he was afraid she might not appreciate that move.” Readers frequently express appreciation that Amish novels are “clean reads,” and that they can leave them lying around the house without worrying that one of their kids might pick them up.
Today’s piece by Kent Russel for The New Republic is charming and fun… and a brilliant idea for a story: “The Boys of Lancaster: There’s a genius to the way Amish play baseball.”
A hard breeze combed through the surrounding cornfields, a shush I spun around to appreciate. Then I noticed the backstop. Not just saw it, but realized that all the other Amish schoolhouses I’d driven by—they didn’t have hoops or goals or uprights in their playfields—they had backstops and baseball diamonds. One boy ran barefoot across the grass and positioned his shoes as bases. Then several more joined him, and they side-armed a ball around the horn with terrible mechanics but unflinching competence. A lefty took up a bat, and I took a few steps back, understanding now that the fence I stood behind doubled as the right-field wall.
He was a new teen whose taut physique had him looking like a system of ropes and pulleys. He stroked a ball over my head, laces hissing. When I sneaked back a few minutes later, he was fielding impassively, scooping and throwing with kinesthetic tics I remember having once, when I was little and in love with the game, before coaches smoothed all that out. They made him seem more authentic, more faithful to the form, like warps and bubbles in handblown glass.
The Amish play baseball! I thought. Of course they do.
image: via sportsjournalists.com