Bonnet Rippers: The Rise of the Amish Romance Novel




Bonnet Rippers: The Rise of the Amish Romance Novel by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

March 21st, 2013 reset - +

THE PEQUEA CREEK scrawls a looping signature through the farmland east of the city of Lancaster, Pennsyl­vania. On a map, one can see the creek’s cursive script winding between Route 30 and Route 340, two of the major routes through Amish country. Eleven million tourists visit Lancaster County each year, many of them traveling Route 30, with its chain restaurants, mega-outlets, and mini-golf courses, and Route 340, flanked by billboards for Jakey’s Amish Barbeque, Amish Country Aerial Tours, and Abe’s Buggy Rides.

Near one oxbow of the Pequea, and not far from these highways, sits the Gordonville Book Store. Owned by an Amish man, the bookstore is a modest building with beige siding. On this snow-covered January day, laundry hangs stiff as card stock on the line between the store and an adjacent house. The store, which sells books, calendars, greeting cards, and gifts, serves mostly Amish and conservative Mennonite patrons. Sometimes English (i.e. non-Amish) people like me happen upon the store, and are pleased to find gas lanterns humming sotto voce and an Amish boy with a bowl cut and a high voice manning the cash register.

On the pavement a few feet from the front door sits a stack of neatly taped boxes apparently delivered that morning. The words “Thomas Nelson” and the company’s logo, a house, are emblazoned on the sides. At the time of my visit, Thomas Nelson is one of the largest Christian publishers in the world. A little over a year later, it will be bought by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

I do not know what books these boxes hold, but as I step inside the door, a shelf to my left offers a clue: Amish romance novels, all with covers depicting lovely Amish-clad Mädchen hovering over pastoral landscapes, line the shelves. A handwritten note on neon green paper taped to one shelf says, “New! Lydia’s Charm.” Published by Barbour Books, the novel tells the gentle story of a widow who moves to Charm, Ohio, and is pursued by two Amish suitors, one a widower with three unruly boys and the other a shy bachelor. Lydia’s Charm is joined by Amish novels published by Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, Bethany House, Revell, Harvest House, and other evangelical houses.

Most of these books, I discovered, were in fact written not by Amish authors but by evangelical Christians. On the Venn diagram of American religion, evangelical and Amish circles share some space. But while they have some aspects in common — a commitment to traditional Christian theology, a high view of Scripture, the conviction that faith should matter in daily life — evangelicals and the Amish are largely separate tribes, speaking distinct cultural dialects that are at times mutually unintelligible. Evangelical Christians themselves come in at least fifty shades, from politically and socially conservative fundamentalists to theologically progressive environmental activists, but most emphasize a personal experience of conversion, relevant witness to the surrounding culture, and the critical nature of evangelism. Evangelical writers of Amish romance novels channel these convictions in their books, with a typical Amish heroine traveling two vectors as her story unfolds: one from the works-based religion of her people to a more warm-hearted and evangelical spirituality, and another from loneliness to love.

The Amish, too, represent a rainbow of religious practices and theologies; there are 40 distinct Amish affiliations, each with its own flavor. Yet despite their diversity, all Amish groups prioritize corporate identity, submission to the church, and witnessing to one’s faith through quiet discipleship, pacifism, and separation from the world. Along with Mennonites and Brethren and several other groups, the Amish trace their roots to the Radical Reformation of the 1500s, when a group of upstarts declared that Zwingli and Calvin weren’t taking their reforms far enough. Unlike many Mennonites and Brethren, however, the Amish have retained certain religious and cultural customs, including horse-drawn transportation, distinctive dress, and use of Pennsylvania German as their first language. A deep communal memory of martyrdom informs Amish assumptions regarding how the larger culture will react to them. While 21st-century preoccupation with the Amish — which ping-pongs between fawning admiration and salacious schadenfreudeis a far cry from the beheadings and drownings the religion experienced in its early years, maintaining low expectations for being understood by outsiders still serves the Amish well.

The Amish proprietor of the Gordonville store is not eager to speak with me about the novels, who is buying them, or how well they are selling. Perhaps he doesn’t care for fiction in general, or at least fiction written by members of another Christian tribe about his own. Perhaps he worries that the plain women who buy the novels will get fancy notions in their heads about how their men should be, or that they will read for hours while dirty clothes molder in the hamper. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to chat with a woman like me, who claims to be a Mennonite but acts nothing like the ones who frequent his store.

Before I leave, however, I count 57 Amish romance titles, including Plain Promise, A Sister’s Hope, and A Dream for Hannah. Many of these novels are set in Lancaster County, some within miles of the Pequea. All of them narrate the longings and loves of Amish women; all contain characters who dress like the owner’s wife.

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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.

Evangelical women aren’t the only ones looking for chaste fiction for themselves and their daughters, as the Gordonville store’s shelves attest. No one knows for certain how many Amish people are reading Amish fiction, but, as I discovered while researching my book about Amish fiction, more than a few stray Amish readers are doing so. 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?

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Doretta Yoder is a tastemaker. A young Amish woman in Indiana, Yoder writes a book review column entitled “I Love to Read!” in a monthly periodical, The Connection, which goes out to Amish and Mennonite households in 43 states and Canada. Located amid advertisements for gas freezers, herbs for bedwetting relief, and inspirational calendars, her column includes short reviews of inspirational fiction, devotional nonfiction, and cookbooks. “I just got my hands on the latest of Beth’s books and already my Mom and cousins are itching to have their turn at reading it!” she wrote about Beth Wiseman’s novel Plain Paradise in May 2010. In January 2008, Yoder wrote about Wanda Brunstetter’s novel On Her Own: “There’s just something about reading a book about your own way of life […] It’s so easy to relate, especially if the story is so realistic.” In 2011, over 60 percent of the books Yoder reviewed were Amish romance novels.

Other signs of a flourishing Amish readership abound. The bookmobile in Holmes County, Ohio keeps a plentiful stock of Amish romance novels, and the librarian told me that they are checked out at a brisk rate; 95 percent of the book­mobile’s patrons are Amish. My friend Karen, who supplies several of her Amish friends with Beverly Lewis and Wanda Brunstetter novels, said that they sometimes tease each other for not being able to put the books down. Her friend Lydia was sleepy when Karen visited one morning because she had stayed up too late the night before reading an Amish novel. “I can’t stop reading them,” one Amish woman told a Wall Street Journal reporter; “I usually better not start in the morning because then I sit around too long.” Ruthie, an Old Order Amish teenager in Lancaster, told me that she read a lot of Amish novels as a young adolescent and that now her 13-year-old sister and her friends are reading them, and an Amish woman in Leola told me that some Amish homes have rows and rows of the novels. “We grow a bit crimson when someone asks us if our life is ‘just like the books’,” a Beachy Amish reader from Holmes County, Ohio wrote in a church periodical. (The Beachy Amish drive cars and use public-grid electricity but still consider themselves Amish.) “Yet we find ourselves embarrassingly and stealthily checking them out at the library to read.”

The authors of the novels themselves claim a wide and appreciative Amish audience. “All of my Amish friends, and their friends, and their friends read my books,” Wanda Brunstetter told me at a book-signing, and Beverly Lewis says Amish fans of her books write to her frequently. Lewis told one reporter that an Amish correspondent once wrote to her, “I don’t want to mislead you, Mrs. Lewis. All of us are reading them under the covers.”

Not quite all. Many of the Amish people I have spoken with display a mix of bemusement and disgust at the novels, especially the covers, with their airbrushed models with plucked eyebrows. They point out glaring inaccuracies in some of the books, such as one Amish person calling another “Mr.” or “Mrs.” On the phone with me, Doretta Yoder expresses more trepidation about the genre than her glowing reviews might suggest. “I have some personal opinions about how some of them write about us,” she tells me, obliquely. “It seems like word has gotten out that if you write about the Amish, you can sell books. I think it’s getting out of hand.”

The wife of a Lancaster County Amish bishop told me about some of the novels she has read and smiled as she recounted some of the common themes and events, including buggy accidents. “This is a great theme,” she said, adding in elevated tones, as if quoting from a novel: “They were thrown violently from the buggy and killed instantly.” She shook her head and searched for the right words. “Frankly, I think they’re shallow. Schusslich. Not realistic.” In Pennsylvania Dutch, schusslich means “clumsy.” Another Amish woman in Lancaster County told me that her teenaged daughters, having read a few of Beverly Lewis’s novels, have taken to calling her “Beverly Clueless.”

“It’s a mystery to a lot of us why they’re so popular,” one Old Order farmer marveled to me. He had never read any of the novels, but his daughter used to tell him about the books’ plots and characters as they milked cows together. His daughter, now the mother of three children, likes to talk about literature. Books by Barbara Kingsolver, James Herriot, and David Baldacci are among her favorites, she tells me as we sit on lawn chairs behind her parents’ house one June evening. A basket of petunias hangs from the laundry line, and cliff swallows dart in and out of their gourd-shaped nests under the eaves of the barn. On the ground near our chairs, her young son feeds flies to a baby swallow that has fallen out of its nest. He holds the tweezers carefully between thumb and forefinger, lowering each fly into the eager young bird’s gullet.

As we chat, it becomes apparent that this Amish woman has very little patience for Amish fiction. “They portray only a few of the Amish as open-minded,” she says, leaning forward in her chair. “Sometimes it appears to bother them that some Amish people are happy. They think we should long for all the things you have. Well, I’m sorry — not everyone wants music and fancy clothes.” Her voice rumples in irritation. “I actually think they’re kind of deceptive. I wouldn’t want my daughters reading them.”

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Music and fancy clothes are precisely what Katie Lapp, the heroine of Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning, the first commercially success­ful contemporary Amish romance novel, longs for. The Shunning appeared in 1997 from Bethany House and far outstripped its publisher’s modest expectations, selling 100,000 copies in its first year and one million copies since. Katie chafes against her community’s many rules, including a sanction against musical instruments, and leaves her Amish fiancé at the altar.

But readers wishing for a happy ending need not fear. By discovering a satin baby dress in the basement, Katie learns that she was adopted by an Amish family as a baby. The trilogy that The Shunning inaugurates follows Katie on her journey to find her birth mother, claim her real identity as an heiress, and eventually reunite with the long-lost love of her youth, Daniel, who also grew up Amish. By the end of the series, Katie and Daniel have made a partial return to Amishness by becoming conservative Mennonite, a liminal space between plain and fancy. Katie has also had a personal conversion experience and says to her adoptive Amish mother, “But, Mamma, following the Ordnung [Amish code of conduct] isn’t what matters. Don’t you see, being a follower of Jesus is what counts?”

It is lines like this that raise the hackles of one Old Order Amish woman with whom I spoke. “We don’t come out and say, ‘You have to be saved,’ or ‘You have to change your life’,” she told me. In addition to their distaste for proselytizing, most Amish hold a view of salvation at odds with the evangelical idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Their understanding of what they call “the new birth” entails a humility that disallows them from declaring an assurance of salvation and that deemphasizes individual spiritual expression. The sociologist Donald Kraybill has suggested that, for the Amish, “a shift toward individual belief, subjective experience, and emotionalism would cultivate individualism and undermine the total package of traditional practices.” When Jesus speaks directly to your heart, why bother to listen to the community?

Yoder, too, is disturbed by Amish novels that contain a lot of devotional content. “Once it gets into religion, that’s the part I don’t like them to write about,” she says. “It’s like we can’t just pray [in the novels] but we have to go through the bishop. They like to write about the bishop ruling everything, which isn’t how it is.” “These writings are merely Protestant romance novels with Amish or Mennonite actors, who think, act, and generally respond as evangelical Christianity would,” wrote one Beachy Amish woman in a church periodical; the novels “teach that becoming a Christian in one short dramatic prayer is going to take away all problems and we live happily ever after.”

This same writer expresses concern about the particular brand of romance found in these novels and how it might affect conjugal relations among the Amish community. “Our husbands now have to be the ‘man of our dreams’ and good-looking to be good husbands,” she writes. In some ways, this is a standard charge against the romance genre, whether secular or Christian: for centuries, it has been claimed that they plant unrealistic fantasies in women’s heads. But her concern is also rooted in a uniquely Amish perspective on courtship and marriage. In their book about the Amish of Ohio, An Amish Paradox, Charles Hurst and David McConnell suggest that love among the Amish is akin to what sociologist Francesca Cancian calls “colonial-era romance,” in that it rests to a greater extent than most contemporary Americans’ conceptions on the instrumental aspects of relationships. “Amish love is based on respect rather than emotion,” one Amish husband told me. A popular Amish publication called Family Life confirms this: “Although romance may have its part in a healthy marriage, let’s not mistake tinsel for gold […] Gifts of flowers and candy may be a token of love and appreciation, but a helping hand with the work or with the children are deeds that speak of true love and devotion.” 

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Amish people reading books by non-Amish writers is nothing new. The books of bestselling evangelical authors such as Max Lucado and Rick Warren were flowing into Amish communities decades ago, and evangelical authors’ nonfiction books are sold in many Amish-owned stores around the country. One Old Order Amish mother in Lancaster County told me her teenage daughter and her friends have all read Before You Meet Prince Charming, a chastity manual for young Christian women, and Amish women repeatedly told me how popular the inspirational novels of Karen Kingsbury are in their communities.

Nor are Amish interactions with evangelicalism a new phenomenon. Since the mid-20th century, when Mennonite evangelists and other ministers (including Beverly Lewis’s father) took up the cause of saving Amish souls through revival meetings and Bible studies, the Amish have interacted with evangelical thought and practice, absorbing and annexing some of it for themselves. Occasionally I encounter Amish people — including ones who have never read an Amish romance novel — who sound remarkably like any jeans-wearing evangelical sipping a latte down at your local megachurch. One Old Order woman, in describing a chance meeting with the Mennonite woman who is now her spiritual mentor, told me, “It was a God thing” — quintessential evangelicalspeak.

What is new about the Amish-reading-Amish-fiction phenomenon has to do with the psychic power of the novel. Fiction, after all, is like a dressing room, allowing the reader to try on the costume of the Other. When an Amish woman reads Amish novels, she encounters heroines who, although dressed like herself, have wholly evangelical souls. She gets to inhabit characters who assume the legitimacy of their own emotions about faith and romance, who are agents at the very center of the devotional and romantic action. In a culture that values submissiveness and sacrifice, especially in women, laying claim to the self is no small thing. Even the simple act of reading a novel, as literary theorist Janice Radway wrote in her 1984 study Reading the Romance, is a strategy by which “a woman can be entirely on her own, preoccupied with her personal needs, desires, pleasure.”

Whether what’s good for an individual Amish woman is good for collective Amish culture is a fascinating question. If Amish women begin reading Amish novels en masse, will they threaten the bonds of male ecclesial authority that have thus far been a constitutive element of their culture? Several media reports have suggested that some Amish bishops “ban” the novels in their church districts, though I found no evidence of this. It’s likely that some church leaders have cautioned their members about the books, but several Amish scholars told me that enforceable decrees against the genre are unlikely, in part because the Ordnung, or rules of an Amish district, change slowly and by community ratification. And Christian evangelical culture itself, of course, is hardly an apotheosis of gender equality. One might hope that Amish women will discover more indigenous ways of advancing their interests than by reading novels written by women whose cultural traditions are, in some ways, just as patriarchal.

When a non-Amish reader reads an Amish novel, she gets to clothe herself in the attire of a life she will never live. When an Amish person reads an Amish novel, she dons apparel both familiar and foreign. No matter how carefully sewn the seams or beautiful the cut, the dress into which she steps has been manufactured in a country not her own.

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As the Amish romance fiction industry continues to expand — twenty-three new series began in 2012 — the Amish will need to figure out their relationship to the fiction being fashioned from the material of their lives. Some Amish folks will likely continue staying up late reading the novels, some will go on being offended by them, and others will keep right on being amused.

In the course of my own research, I found that many Amish readers enjoyed Amish fiction even as they resisted certain aspects of it. “Sometimes I even talk back to the books,” one young Mennonite woman wearing a head covering said to me in a store aisle, and I wanted to tell her that I have never heard a lovelier way to describe the act of reading. Indeed, reading is not ingestion. If literary theory has taught us anything, it’s that writers do not simply lower meaning into the throats of waiting readers, authorial intention intact. Readers cobble together meaning from a combination of the text, their own experiences, and the norms and values of the interpretive communities to which they belong.

Thus, it is too facile to predict that Amish readers will simply begin parroting the sweet nothings and jargon of faith that come from the mouths of protagonists of Amish fiction. To suggest that the boxes of books just outside the Gordonville Book Store are Trojan horses — innocent fictions releasing an evangelical scourge that will decimate Amish culture from the inside out — would be overly deterministic, not to mention condescending. The Amish have evolved in remarkable ways to meet the stresses and spoils of the 20th and 21st centuries, having long ago developed a sophisticated alloy of rejection and adaptation to the dominant U.S. culture. Retaining about 85 percent of their youth and doubling their population every 18 to 20 years, the Amish aren’t likely to allow a subgenre of inspirational fiction to overhaul their cultural and religious distinctions.

Yet Amish fiction may be a slowly unfolding case study in a literary version of what physicists call “the observer effect,” in which the very act of observation alters the observed. When novelists fashion a fiction about a culture of which they are not a part, and those in the culture read and take pleasure in those fashionings, some measure of cultural evolution is likely to occur. That this possibility concerns rather than pleases me may be indicative of a misplaced or even patronizing custodianship, which Mennonites like me have sometimes been accused of with regard to our ecclesial cousins. Still, I can’t shake the sense that it would be a great loss if the evangelical circle on that Venn diagram slid so far over the Amish one that nothing remained outside of their mutual intersection.

So it is that I am heartened by the conversation I have with an Amish acquaintance shortly after I leave the Gordonville Book Store. I arrive at her farm in the early afternoon, and she leads me into her living room, where she is hanging clothes to dry near a large woodstove. She gives me a mug of warm peppermint tea and keeps working. As we visit, her 15-year-old daughter sits down shyly on the other end of the couch. Both of them have read several Amish novels, but neither cared much for them.

“We just scream sometimes when we see the covers!” the mother tells me, tugging a still-damp dress and its hanger off of a hook on the wall. She spins it in the air between us so that I can see the way the fabric lays in the front and the back. Her daughter smiles, fingertips pressed to her lips, and she and her mother start to laugh. “On one of the covers, the girl has her dress on backwards.”

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