Ever since the genre garnered enough readership to warrant its own category at Barnes and Noble, WalMart, and unquestionably Christian bookstores, discourses surrounding Amish fiction have been problematic. At first glance – when you judge the books by their covers – the genre is comical, almost always featuring a sort of quasi-harlequin romance novel depiction with a distraught-looking girl dressed in unadorned clothes peering off across plains of wheat that stretch far into the distance.
The conundrum that is Amish fiction cannot be discussed without starting at its epicenter, and it’s an epicenter that will make your stomach growl. Apple strudel, pineapple ice cream, tomato relish, freshly baked bread, liverwurst, a good cup of hot coffee – these are a small sampling of the rustic treats consumed by the Lancaster Amish community in Beverly Lewis’ literary world of bonnets and Rumspringa.
Undoubtedly, it is Lewis’ 1997 book The Shunning that marks the start of the Amish fiction craze. Delving into The Shunning is a tad painful at first if you aren’t used to reading genre fiction of this kind. Beverly Lewis describes the clothes, manners, customs, and dialect of an Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in which her main characters, the Lapp family, live, in an awkward tone that seems overly dramatized. Each Amish tradition is capitalized in the prose, and words spoken in Amish vernacular are italicized. As the novel continues and the story of Katie Lapp’s betrothal to a widowed Bishop from among “the People” unfolds, however, the accounts of Amish manners and customs- begin to be necessary. As with any piece of historical fiction, the reader must know particular background information and cultural conventions. Once those are in place, and although The Shunning never quite breaks away from the histrionic, it’s easier to navigate the plot, sympathize with characters, and buy into the story.
The truth is, you cannot be on the fence about Amish fiction. Either book covers featuring bonneted girls pepper your bookshelf, or you roll your eyes when you stroll by an end cap in a big box store that displays the dismayed girls in their wheatfields. The hullaballoo merits asking the question: Why the Amish fiction obsession?
In an interview with Salon, Bethany House publishing vice president Steve Oats spoke about what he believes makes Amish fiction so popular. “Everyone gathers around the table for the evening meal.,” he said. “Life is first and foremost family-oriented, and the environment is one in which it’s perfectly natural to talk about God, about praying. Children are naturally obedient. They’re not running off to hang out with their friends.”
Spoken like a true marketing genius – a man who knows his audience, what they like, and what they’ll buy. “Of course,” Oats notes, “that’s not the way it really is in the Amish community – they have their own problems – but in these books everyone belongs to a close, tight-knit community, which is very appealing to women.”
Based on the testimony of this spokesman for the Amish fiction machine, it seems that the genre of bonnets is for women what Westerns or fantasy novels are (excuse the generalization) for many men: escapist fiction. Escapism carries a negative connotation, as if a temporary turn from realism and to the worlds of the imagination were a crime, or even a sin. J.R.R. Tolkien had another take .“Fantasy,” he believed, “is escapist, and that is its glory. If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
If what we read matters, and if art can effect change or improvement in others and us at all, then fantasy – not just wizard literature, but books relating a healthier and more hopeful reality – is not an escape, but a calling.
The popularity of Amish fiction is more than critics suggest; scoffers are far too quick to shrug off the books at the first sight of a head covering. No zeitgeist or trend exists in a vacuum, and while the easiest way to dismiss the inclination toward Amish fiction is to label it sentimental and ignorantly escapist, it is possible that the popularity of Amish fiction novels indicates a constructive social turn: toward the brand of community the fantasy-Amish way of life offers.
Tolkien and his fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis wrote works of fantasy literature against the backdrop of one of most horrifying events in history, the two-part World War of the twentieth century. Fantasy wasn’t merely make-believe; it was necessary for them to envision a new, better reality than the one of trench foot, and mechanized death that pervaded their daily lives.
Today, a tedious, technologized, and frenetic culture dominates our days. With each iPhone upgrade and with every additional extra-curricular activity we pile onto our children’s agenda and our own schedules, we are falling more and more out of tune with the agrarian and communal virtues and values that the Amish community infuse into their lifestyle. Our gadgets and activities pull us away from sitting around the dinner table as a family at night, and from being as aware of our own mortality and the importance of others as we might be.
In Wendell Berry’s poem “Amish Economy,” the poet celebrates communal lifestyle and agrarian culture, as Berry narrates the life of an unnamed Amish community. Berry writes,
But now, in summer dusk, a man
Whose hair and beard curl like spring ferns
Sits under the yard trees, at rest,
His smallest daughter on his lap.
This is because he rose at dawn,
Cared for his own, helped his neighbors,
Worked much, spent little, kept his peace.
What Berry commends is the same longing the authors and readers of Amish fiction could, should, or already do feel, whether subconsciously or intentionally, when they read books like The Shunning. The Amish world is, at first glance, seemingly utopian. The best authors of Amish fiction – Beverly Lewis and others – however, don’t fentirely idealize the Amish communities they describe in their work. Tensions between Amish and American life fuel the plots, and characters fight about Plain attitudes toward music, clothing, relationships, and theology. These authors are not, however, ashamed to exalt Amish values we would be better for esteeming in our own lives: manual work, stewardship of resources, accountability and support among family, and spiritual discipline.
Accordingly, “bonnet books” fulfill a different role in our lives than traditionally escapist literature like science fiction and fantasy. Joining a Plain community is much more possible (though the mystic in me is never going to say never) than joining up with a band of wizards on a quest to battle a gold-hungry dragon.
The Amish way of life is an actual existence, not an imaginary world. The traits of the Amish can permeate every one of our breaths, because though the values they venerate are deeply countercultural, they are tangible and possible. The families of the Amish fictional universe are fantasy, but they are grounded in a way of life that is a choice any of us might make, even if our participation in this way of life is only partial.
The appeal of Amish fiction, then, is not mere sentimentalism, but reflects a conviction that such a way of life is still possible. But the appeal goes beyond this as well: we project onto the Plain world a human archetype: the archetype of return to a lost paradise, a lost way of life, something that is symbolized by but not fully present in our agrarian past.
Please bear with me through a geeky pop culture reference: at one point during the first season of ABC’s LOST, when all seems to have gone to hell, Dr. Jack Shepard desperately bellows at Kate Austen “We have to go back.”
“We have to go back” has been a shared soul-utterance among civilizations and cultures for thousands of years now. Movements of people unhappy with what political, mechanical, and technological “innovations” have wrought have been historically common; think about the back-to-the-land philosophies popular at the turn of the 19th century and, more contemporarily, the popularity of the term “pioneer” disseminated in culture. Colonial House (also called Pioneer House) was a reality television series produced by PBS in 2004 in which people set out to live life as it was lived in Plymouth Colony, and the blog run by Oklahoma farmer’s wife Ree Drummond, a blog called “The Pioneer Woman,” is one of the most popular in the country.
It’s a persistent thing, this sense we have that “We have to go back.”
That progress hasn’t been all good.
That innovations aren’t necessarily healthy.
That improvements have only made people, animals, and the land, worse off, or that they haven’t been improved in the right sense.
Amish fiction’s popularity is yet another example of the often fleeting, vague, but convicting stirring in human hearts that “We have to go back,” because we’ve either voyaged too far or ventured somewhere we haven’t wanted to go in the first place. The hopeful truth is that Amish fiction reaches a faction (and a numerous one, at that) of culture probably not thinking about distributism or Ned Ludd. Books about Hochmut, Demut, Gelassenheit, and the quilting of the Plain people echo and confirm that “We have to go back” isn’t a notion theorized solely in scholarly spaces or in the minds of lofty agricultural and economic theorists: it is a human compulsion. There is a place we’re trying to get to, and it can be adequately (if not fully) spoken of by this notion of return.
And so I say, and believe we should all say together (while convening around a sturdy wooden table laden, of course, with sweet jams, preserves, and jellies) Amish fiction is a good thing. Amish fiction offers us, as Duke Divinity School professor Lauren Winner says– speaking kindly of the influence Jan Karon’s Mitford series has had on her own relationship with God,–“not just a glimpse of a simple life, but a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.”