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I first noticed the books about five years ago in a grocery checkout line in suburban Chicago. Their covers sport bonnet-clad heads on demure-looking young white women posed in calm domestic or pastoral scenes. Perhaps a horse-drawn buggy rolls by in the distance, or a barn is etched on the horizon. Maybe a young man in a wide-brimmed hat stands gazing at the woman in the foreground. These book covers suggest romantic plots or perhaps a girl’s coming-of-age story. With titles like The Shunning, A Man of His Word, Lilly’s Wedding Quilt, and The Storekeeper’s Daughter, these novels evoke a distinct cultural identity: the Amish. (Readers are not to be distracted by the non-Amish names of authors, such as Beverly Lewis, Kathleen Fuller, and Kelly Long.)
These books, dubbed “Amish romance novels,” “Amish fiction,” or the more waggish “bonnet rippers,” are just one entry point into the varying images of Amish communities in U.S. popular culture. Today we can watch reality television shows with such names as Breaking Amish, Amish Mafia, or the U.K.’s Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers. Vanilla Ice is apparently “going Amish” for a home-renovation show. The tourist industry in “Amish Country” is booming, especially around the presumed Amish homeland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Those who can’t hail a buggy ride can visit it virtually through websites (some run by publishing houses) such as AmishLiving.com, or listen to the Amish Wisdom radio hour for inspiration. But the Amish romance novel paints its Amish paradise with distinct hues, and the genre has seen a marked surge in the last decade. From 2000 to 2006, fewer than 20 Amish romance novels were published in the United States; from 2007 to 2012, more than 200 were. Beverly Lewis is the unquestioned matriarch of this latest wave of Amish romance novels, with over 17 million sold. Her 1997 book The Shunning and its sequels broke the levees for the current flood, which shows no signs of stopping.
Although technically “romance novels,” these books stand out in the genre. As much as they overlap in plot structure with more traditional romances, they diverge in sexual tone. In this, the books help readers process their experience of a sexualized culture, and allow them to retreat from that culture temporarily. The characters lead moral lives, wear modest clothing, and abstain from sexual expression unless they’re married. Descriptions of women’s physical attributes—the bedrock on which most romance novels are built—are almost absent, which offers a refreshing lack of body objectification. As one characters says of his fiancée in Lewis’s The Shunning, “Of course, a woman’s beauty was not the main consideration when taking a mate, but when a woman was as pretty as Katie Lapp, the spark was stronger.” Additionally, the text is written without even the suggestion of sex, in keeping with the preferences of the genre’s mostly evangelical Christian readership. On her wedding day, for instance, Katie is embarrassed to have to admit she had not remained “pure,” because she had kissed a boy a few years ago. Fifty Shades of Rumspringa, this is not.
So what lies behind the allure of the Amish among evangelical and mainstream audiences alike? Perhaps it’s that the Amish seem like a convenient vehicle for citizens of a quickly modernizing culture to process their own insecurities and the changes they see around them, especially in terms of technology, gender, sexuality, race, and religion. In her popular 1989 book Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish, Sue Bender explains her motivation in a short prologue: “I had an obsession with the Amish. Plain and simple. Objectively it made no sense. I, who worked hard at being special, fell in love with a people who valued being ordinary.” Bender charts an “obsession” shared by many others. She describes the fundamental tension that drives the fascination with the Amish: there’s our fast-paced, fancy, complicated modern world, and there’s seeming simplicity and calm of Plain people’s communal way of life. Into this tension steps the iconic Amishwoman, serving up spiritual sanctuary like so much scrapple. It’s the flip side of the “white savior” phenomenon: Here, travelers seek their own salvation by engaging the exotic Other.
Valerie Weaver-Zercher tackles the intrigue of the Amish fiction in the engaging, fantastically titled book Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. She explores “virtuous womanhood” and how the novels tap into readers’ “competing notions of womanhood.” Most Amish fiction books maintain traditional gender norms through what Weaver-Zercher identifies as “the three basic installments in the typical Amish protagonist’s life—virginal youth and courtship, complementarian marriage, and willing motherhood.” (Complementarian marriage implies hierarchal, heterosexual unions; a few novels about gay and lesbian Amish characters exist, but the norm is heterosexual.) These stages and values align closely with the ideals of womanhood held by the evangelical Christian reading community. Like their readers, the mostly female protagonists of these novels live within a patriarchal society, yet they navigate differently within it. Some conform, and some rebel. Beverly Lewis’s protagonist Katie Lapp faces the titular Shunning, risking familial security in pursuit of her own sense of calling to another way of living. Love and duty move these women, but self-determination does, too.
The novels offer sanctuary from rapid changes in both evangelical churches and the wider world, providing readers what renowned Amish scholar Donald Kraybill calls an “anchor of stability to comfort people who feel threatened by the change.” For example, in terms of ethnicity, the Amish descend almost exclusively from German and Swiss ancestors, and their numbers expand due to large family size and high retention rates rather than conversion (despite what the novels’ plotlines might have you believe). In many ways, Amish identity does function as an ethnic grouping separate from the “English,” i.e., people living with modern conveniences. English and Amish are not intended as ethnic designations, but still function as markers of insider-outsider status (and drive many a plot line). For readers deemed “English,” this contrast allows them to explore ethnic difference from the status of outsider. At the same time, Amish communities offer the nostalgic image of all-white enclaves, lacking the racial diversity of our wider nation. For certain readers, the illusion of a uniform community offers welcome escape from their own; such illusion requires temporarily ignoring the realities of both worlds.
It seems that some women engage the culture they meet more deeply than others. Novels are often “authentic” enough that some Amish themselves read them. Consumers of the Amish brand, though, are not always as interested in authenticity, as the Not Quite Amish blog reveals. It describes itself as “a community blog for those who love Amish communities, simple living, vintage style, and have a desire to be in growing relationships with friends, family, and God.” As with much of the cross-cultural literature, this description reveals far more about the desires and struggles of the writers and readers of the blog than those of the Amish themselves. One blogger, Amy Lillard, confesses her definitively un-Amish love of glitter:
There are so many things about the Amish culture I adore and appreciate…. But how wonderful to have the best of the Amish life and the things we love from the English world. Things like family values and, oh, I don’t know…glitter powder?
She seems comfortable cherry-picking lifestyle elements from an ever-expanding array of sources, stitching them together to create a patchwork of the order and meaning she chooses. In this she is a typical postmodern citizen—not quite so Amish at all. People turn to the Amish because they seem to embody a non-materialistic lifestyle. Yet, as they do so, who is profiting? These questions matter beyond the Amish. The Maasai of eastern Africa noticed that their culture was being “branded” and appropriated by high fashion, athletic companies, and the tourism industry. This year, they established the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative to review and manage how their image is used. The Navajo of North America have done similarly by trademarking their name to avoid it being slapped on knock-off art and hipster garb. Amish would likely avoid this route, due to their chosen cloister from the state, yet the idea that the English continue to profit from the Amish “brand” doesn’t sit right, either. The cultural co-opting extends to religion, as well.
At the same time that they are using the “brand,” Amish romance novelists often write with a particular agenda. Evangelical Christian authors writing for evangelical audiences sometimes present Amish faith as something to be converted away from, as it values community order over the individualistic piety of evangelicals. This is where Amish-novel popularity gets personal for me. My denomination, the Church of the Brethren, shares historic roots with the Amish; we’re another branch on the tree of Anabaptism. But ours is a branch that chose to live in the modern world, not separate from our neighbors. We differ on clothing, discipline, women’s roles, and communal lifestyle, but we share with the Amish a core belief in pacifism and nonresistance. These nonviolent practices garnered the Amish praise after the 2006 massacre in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where a gunman shot ten and killed five Amish girls in their one-room schoolhouse. The Amish provided a powerful witness to mainstream America by offering forgiveness to the killer and his family. Yet rarely does this important—and distinctive—pacifism gain even a mention in the popular image of the Amish.
In fact, “Weird Al” Yankovic spends a larger time portraying Amish nonresistance in his 1996 Coolio parody, “Amish Paradise,” than most contemporary representations do; most Amish romance novels elide pacifism entirely. “Reality” television goes beyond ignoring Amish pacifism to scripting violent conflict into its narratives, such as the invented “Amish Mafia” of hitmen to enforce church discipline. (Kraybill is unequivocal in his denunciation of such shows: “All that is a fabrication of the producers; there is nothing ‘real’ about it.” It is, to him, “very insulting and abusive of the Amish.”) But representations of Amish religion matter, with consequences that extend beyond Lancaster County. Popular portrayals emphasize certain values, like virtuous womanhood, which comfort evangelical readers; they obscure other, progressive values, such as pacifism or rejecting nationalism. In this view, Amish come across as almost interchangeable with other patriarchal religious communities, leaving only aesthetics to distinguish them from Latter-Day Saints or Seventh-day Adventists in the popular imagination.
Amish needn’t be automatic allies of the religious right, yet oversimplified portrayals box them into a conservative political agenda: The publisher HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire, now owns a 70 percent share of the religious book market, according to Weaver-Zercher—including a sizeable slice of Amish fiction. The Amish figures of pop culture are creations of outsiders’ imagination. Yet those images function in the real world, revealing more about those doing the imagining than about those imagined. What “Englishers” project onto the Amish reveals our own struggles with consumerism, technology, gender identity, sexuality, race, and body image. Our projections onto this Amish Paradise help us process the world around us. And yet, these imagined beings are no fantasy; the Amish being portrayed are very real people. It may not be as cozy to consider Amish outside the paradise we imagine for them, but if we do so we can learn more about our neighbors here on earth.