Monday, August 13, 2007

Amish Intrigue

Because I am soon going to be living amongst the Amish, I've visited my local library and checked out a few books on the topic, as well as a couple of mysteries that take place in Amish country. Interestingly enough, I've learned quite a lot from these mysteries, and I can highly recommend Tamar Myers and her PennDutch Inn mysteries if you like mysteries a la Janet Evanovich. Magdalena Yoder, Mennonite proprietress of the inn and amateur sleuth, is enviously sharp, wry, and sarcastic. Bob's busy reading Jodi Picoult's Plain Truth, which I plan to do as well. As our young friend who recommended it told us, "I mean, she's not a great writer, but she's good and will really drag you in," an opinion being borne out, judging by Bob's constant reading. Sarah Strohmeyer's Bubbles in Trouble had some interesting details, and it was okay, but it tried just a little too hard.

Meanwhile, the nonfiction has been somewhat frustrating. The more I read, the less I feel I know or understand this sect. Granted, one of the problems is that I've chosen books that appeal to the anthropologist in me. The first one is actually a book that didn't come from the library. In fact it hasn't even been published yet, but will be next month. It's called Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zerdner, leading authorities on Amish culture. This is a book about how the Amish responded to the 2006 tragedy of a one-room schoolhouse shooting of little girls. The second is Plain and Simple by Sue Bender. This book came out not too long after the movie Witness, when this country was all enamored with an overly-romanticized vision of the Amish, and I remember it being in high demand when I worked at the library. It's about a woman in search of art and simplicity and definition in her life who chooses to go live with a couple of Amish families for a period of time. Finally, I've been reading a book called Rumspringa by Tom Schachtman that evolved from the making of the documentary The Devil's Playground, which I haven't seen. It's all about a period for Old Order Amish youths (usually ages 16 - 19 or so) in which they are allowed to run wild or a period of "running around" (which is the literal translation of the Penn Dutch term). They are allowed to leave their communities and to take on the ways of "the English" (those of use who are non-Amish, regardless of national heritage, because rather than speaking their German dialect, we all speak English). During this period, the teenagers shop for clothes at Target, carry and use cell phones, stay out all night at parties drinking, etc. (in other words, behave like most American teenagers). Then, they decide whether or not they want to be baptized into the Amish faith or remain on the outside (but, I'm learning, it's much more complicated than that). These books have all been fascinating, but I'm not really getting a lot of historical background information, nor details of the church and its practices. Not to worry, though. I've developed a rather long bibliography of books to seek once I'm down there, where I'm sure they'll be more readily available.

Another problem is that the books I've been reading have all been written by "English" authors. We English seem to fall into two camps: those who are drawn to this seemingly wonderful and simplistic life in which everyone's roles and duties are defined and people live in real community (that would be me. Ahh, to live such a life in which the most important things, rather than being ten times removed, all revolve around the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and care for others) and those who have a very critical eye focused on these people who are so different, pretending the eye is completely open-minded and objective (that would be me as well. You know, it's not necessarily for me. I need pursuits that are more intellectually challenging in my life than trying to clean house without the help of such things as vacuum cleaners and dishwashers. However, it works for them, and they have a right to live their lives. What? The women aren't allowed to join in male conversations at the dinner table? That's barbaric! Someone needs to go in there and teach those women to stand up for themselves). This sets up a dynamic in which it's pretty difficult to figure out exactly what's true about these people. Of course, if I were to find books and articles written by the Amish (not always easy due to their tendency not to want to single themselves out from their communities), I'd still be confused, because these books would be bound to have their own subjective spins. I plan to do this, though, because it's the only way to get as complete a picture as possible.

The final problem is an assumption on everyone's part that these people can be lumped under the words "the Amish," and that any assumptions are going to hold true for all those under the label. From what I'm gathering, these people and their beliefs, in many respects, are as varying as "the Presbyterians," or "the Catholics," or "the Baptists," basically, any other Christian denomination (or religious denomination, for that matter). From what I can tell, it seems, like many denominations, the majority are following tradition more than they're understanding tradition or the reasoning behind it. And like any denomination, those who do study the reasoning behind the tradition often seem to be doing so in order to find loopholes that will allow them to make exceptions or changes that will make their lives easier.

So, this is my introduction to the Amish. I'm sure that in the coming months you'll be dragged along on this exploration of mine, whether you like it or not. I'm going to be very interested to see who wins the tug of war: the romantic or the critic.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I don't know anything about the Amish really, other than that they make great handmade products like furniture and quilts. Have you come across anything about why they have chosen the to live the way they do? And how many of the teenagers decide to become Amish after their "wild time"?

Rebecca H. said...

Fascinating stuff! It makes perfect sense that the Amish are a complex bunch and that it's impossible (and unfair) to generalize about them. I'm looking forward to hearing what else you learn about them.

IM said...

You have really started some dedicated research on the Amish, and I can't wait to hear more about what you find. I'm also envious that you get to read the book that isn't even on shelves yet.

Rebecca said...

This is really interesting - can't wait to see how your real life observations compare with what you've been reading.

Emily Barton said...

Stef, from what I gather, it mostly has to do with the idea of not giving into material desires, as well as a way to keep themselves separate from society. In the book I'm reading, so far about 1/4 of the teens have chosen not to be baptized into the Amish faith.

Dorr, yes, it does make perfect sense.

Ian, one of the perks of being in the publishing business and knowing others in the publishing business.

Becky, I can't wait either. I'm going to have to squash the urge to act like Margaret Meade, though, notebook in hand everywhere I go.