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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels

Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels - Valerie Weaver-Zercher This book provides a scholarly analysis of Amish romance novels, a genre that not many of my Goodreads.com friends are familiar with based upon the reviews I see posted. I don't read many of these novels, so why would I want to read a book like this? One thing I have in common with this author is being Mennonite with a family tree full of Amish ancestors. With this ancestral tie I may be exhibiting a defensive curiosity about how my Amish cousins are being characterized by the world of literature. The author Valerie Weaver-Zercher describes it thus:
"I may also view Amish fiction with a misplaced sense of custodianship. Now that so many people, mostly non-Anabaptists, are writing about my ecclesial cousins, criticism from a Mennonite like me may reflect a knee-jerk mistrust of outsider writing about "my" people." (p247)
This book provides a description of the history and nature of the genre as well as the motivations and types of readers who drive its sales. The thoroughly footnoted book is based upon research of related books and articles as well as interviews with authors, publishers and readers.

The only books I’ve read (except for this) from this genre are Bevery Lewis’ “Heritage of Lancaster County” trilogy originally published in 1997. That satisfied my curiosity, and I didn’t think about it much until recently when I was in a Christian store (they don’t call them book stores anymore) and discovered a whole isle devoted exclusively to books that had front covers showing a young woman wearing a prayer covering (bonnet in the common vernacular).  I was blown away by the volume and variety of books offered within that genre.  According to the Los Angeles Review of Books, a new Amish romance novel hit the market every four days in 2012. The Wall Street Journal reports that the genre's top three authors have sold more than 24 million books.  Most of this growth in popularity has been within the past five years.

The bulk of these sales are to white evangelical Christian women. They like the books for their "clean read" (no explicit sex), the devotional religious language (relationship with God concerns), and the emphasis on the simple life. You don't have to fit this demographic to enjoy the stories, so all types of people can be found who read them.

So this raises the question of how accurately the books describe Amish life. Regarding the descriptions of their work, family and community life, people who are knowledgeable on the subject can find plenty of little errors that most readers wouldn't care about. One example of this that I found humorous was the answer given by Linda Byler (the only widely read author who is actually Amish herself) to the question as to how accurate the picture on the cover of one of her novels was.
" 'Well, the cape? Oh my, it's pitiful how they put that on.' She points out some error in how the model's Halsduch is draped, some false angle or scrunched-up lay of the fabric. I can't quite follow her explanation, and she acknowledges that it would seem a minor detail to an English person like me." (p195)
The above quote reminds me of the how bizarre the use of the term "English" to refer to anybody who isn't Amish must be to most readers. It's a term I grew up with, but it must surely lead to confusion for some readers of this book. The author early in the book provides a footnote that clearly explains the meaning of the word as used in this book. But I'm sure there are some who will miss that footnote and wonder why there are so many English in Lancaster County. The Amish speak Pennsylvania German in their homes, so it's logical for them to refer to those who don't as English (i.e. speakers of English).

Continuing with the subject of accuracy, the book raises the question of whether it is proper for Christian evangelicals to superimpose their theology onto stories about the Amish community which they may or may not agree with it. The book doesn't provide a final judgment on that question. It's interesting to note that very few of the Amish romances acknowledge the traditional pacifism practiced by the Amish. Nor do they mention that Amish grade schools don't have an American flag inside. Nor do the books mention that the Amish students do not recite the pledge of allegiance. I guess those would be inconvenient truths for the conservative evangelicals.

Amish novels also give the impression that all Amish children attend small rural schools run by the Amish themselves whereas the truth is that over half of Amish children attend public schools. The books give the impression that all Amish men work on their farms. The truth is today that over half of Amish men have full time non-farm jobs.

One parallel between the typical evangelical reader and the Amish world depicted by the books that I hadn’t considered before reading this book is fact that many evangelical reader’s have experienced rigid Fundamentalist rules in their past in ways similar to the fictional depiction of Amish who are chafing under the judgment of their rigid Ordnung. In reality the Amish Ordnung isn't as sinister as many novels suggest.

Another thought I had was that the popularity among conservative Christian evangelicals for home schooling their children in order to protect them from exposure to the outside world must surely have something in common with the desire of the Amish to live lives separate from the world. The reason for their plain dress is to show that separateness.

There are variations of the stereotypical novel described above. The author interviewed at least one author who had her books carry the message that the Amish are a cult with un-Christian practices and beliefs. There are also Amish murder mysteries and even Amish vampire novels.

I thought the book covered the subject of Amish romance novels with complete thoroughness. Nevertheless, at the end of the book the author suggests areas for possible future research and writing.