Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Review of Two "Amish" Novels

If you've been around for a while you've heard me fuss about all the Amish novels out there, those paperback books with dreamy Amish girls on the covers, with a buggy and a handsome man in the background, put out by Christian publishers.

Without going into the literary quality (or lack of) of any of these books, the #1 thing that makes me cringe when I read them is the authenticity factor. I read them and think, "An Amish person would never say that," or do that, or think that, or choose that.

Authors, along with most of the population, seldom get that the Amish have a completely different world view from the rest of America. Individuality vs. community, right and wrong, condemnation and redemption, public vs. private, work and leisure, talk and silence, and much more. They're not average Americans who happen to wear funny clothes.

It's typically cavalier American to think you can do some reading and visit a few Amish families and write an authentic novel. An Amishman would never be that audacious about a different culture, assuming that you could read about the Masai, for example, and visit for a week and then write a story about them.

I could ignore the whole Amish-novel fad if it wouldn't be for all the people I meet who gush that they now know all about my Amish past and my Mennonite present because they've read all these stories. And I should get in on the gravy train myself.

But now I'll quit fussing and review two books about the Amish that pleasantly surprised me.

My friend Mary Hake has been after me to read Hillary Manton Lodge's Plain Jayne. And my sis Rebecca has for years been telling me I need to read Jodi Picoult's Plain Truth. Oddly enough, I happened to read both in the last couple of weeks. Mary had loaned me Plain Jayne and I finally got around to reading it, and in the middle of that I stumbled across Plain Truth at a garage sale.

So, to compare and contrast. Both are stories of outsiders coming into the Amish community. Both involve a son who left the Amish and a dad who completely cut him off. And, blessedly, you can read both and have the story itself--characters, suspense, development, romance, whatever--front and center on the stage, rather than the Amishness.

Of the two books, Plain Jayne is much more light and fluffy but still a worthwhile read. It's set in Oregon, with a disclaimer at the front of the book that this is a work of fiction and there are actually no Amish communities in Oregon. Also, a Mennonite columnist is mentioned now and then, and Paul is just sure that was based on me, which is kind of cute. The best part of the book was the author's sense of humor. She sticks in all these snarky little asides that always caught me by surprise and made me snicker. Applause to the author's obvious skill and careful craftsmanship.

And of course it's fun to read a book about places you know--Lincoln City, Powell's Books in Portland, Interstate 5.

I felt like HM Lodge had the good sense to know what she didn't know about the Amish, and didn't let her imagination go too far. She didn't get everything right, but it didn't make me cringe too much because the story's focus was on the main character, who isn't Amish, and is simply looking on while trying to resolve all the issues in her own life.

Plain Truth is in a whole different category, and much more literary and complicated and "heavy," so it probably isn't quite fair to compare the two books. In short, a dead newborn baby is found in an Amish farmer's barn. All kinds of mysteries develop--who had the baby, how did he die, was he murdered, and by whom? The high-powered city lawyer comes into the story, of course, but her journey/choices turn out to closely parallel the Amish young people's stories, showing their similarities despite all their differences.

The most astonishing thing about the book is how well she "got" the Amish world view. For example, most authors jump on the "bann" and present it in one harsh perspective, but Picoult somehow got the nuances of how it all fits into the community and forgiveness and redemption.

Also, what the Amish said and what they decided to not say rang true, which is one of the toughest things for non-Amish authors to get right. Picoult spent less time with the Amish than many authors, but somehow she understood them the best.

So, both books get my approval. Plain Truth is a secular novel, written for adults, so preview it before you recommend it to your offspring.

And one more thing--do you see any similarities in these two covers?

Same artist!

Quote of the Day:
"Forget that story!"
--second grader Bryant H., the day I helped in Miss Megan's classroom, after plowing through a page in his Pace.


  1. I live near Jamesport, Mo.
    In the Amish quilt shop, they have a little Christian book store... and I am always surprised that they have a prominate display of these 'other' Amish books that you alluded to. Why would they want those in their shop?

    And is there a GOOD book out there that is truthful and honest about the Amish lifestyle?
    I would like to read these two that you reviewed.I don't read 'the others' because I want to know what is true first.

  2. I got to say that Amish are so different from community to community. In our community the bann was very harsh. Some author's write from their own experience. Your experience as an amish is very different from many people I know back east. It's interesting to me because one of my friends informed me that she didn't like a certain author because she misrepresented the Amish. I on the other hand was shocked because I always thought her to be the most accurate author to represent what I had known. The difference was in the Amish communities. I always resented for instance anyone calling me amish or saying that Mennonites were like amish because in our community, trust me we are so different in our beliefs,morals,etc. And for the most part have no desire to be associated with them. I just wander if the books you think are not truthful about the amish may be truthful, in a totally different way.

  3. Whenever I see one of those "Amish" books I need to work to keep the sneer off my face. I'm not Amish and never have been, but my parents were both born into Amish families, and I had/have many Amish friends, which often happens when you grow up in the biggest Amish community in the world.
    Yes, Amish communities vary greatly from one community to the next. Moving from Ohio to PA has taught me that much. And often what bothers me most is not the way the bann is portrayed in the "plain" books, but a host of other things, small things maybe, but those are the things that give away the fact that this author has no deep understanding of the way we plain people think and live.
    Thanks for the recommendations. I want to read these 2 books!

  4. Same for me about shopping in Jamesport, but I think they justify it being they are serving the tourist at that store.
    I was not raised Amish and when I joined my parent/siblings were horrified. After all they knew all about the Amish from reading ....well we know who the authors are. Or worse yet, they had seen a documentary on TV about the Amish and of course that HAD to be accurate. Isn't everything they say on TV true??
    Every community banns differently and the results depend on the hearts of the people involved.

  5. What I found incredibly fascinating was, while visiting my cousins, who are very conservative swartzentruber-type Amish, I discovered that the girls read and collected such "Amish" books when other fiction books were banned by their parents. I have attempted to reason that out, but have yet to understand why books that misrepresent their culture and often put it in a negative light would be allowed, while all other christian fiction is strictly prohibited.

  6. plain truth by jodi picoult.
    i like jodi picoult.
    i've read probably half of her books.

  7. What is even worse than reading those "Amish" books is listening to them on CD! The performers reading them just can't get those Dutch words pronounced right.

  8. Dorcas, when is your Mennonite fiction book coming out? I'm not into Amish novels or much fiction for that matter, but would be interested in reading a good Menno novel.
    Having previously seen, researched, and documented Amish reading habits for a published academic journal, I can say with some authority that yes, the at least the Amish in the big 3 settlements read those commercialized Amish books. All one needs to do to see this for themselves is to watch the young women line up for the latest B.Lewis at the Walnut Creek flea market book stand.
    (BTW-some of us respect you for not riding the gravy train.)

  9. Plain Truth was a very good read...I just did not like the ending and felt it was inconsistent with what she had expressed earlier in the book. I'll leave it at that to prevent spoiling it for others, but it was my major gripe with the book.

  10. I liked Plain Truth & it had the ring of authenticity for me ~ & no, not Amish [no Amish in my part of the world] but I had read a lot of N/F before PT & weighed what people like Kraybill[?] had said about different communities against Piccout's representation & it seemed to fit pretty well. Like any other work of fiction some authors romantacise their subject matter while others go for gritty realism. Let's just say I'm not the romantic sort. ☺

  11. @Hillbilly Handiworks--stores stock the "other" Amish books because they sell well.
    You might enjoy reading non-fiction books about the Amish by Donald Kraybill or John Hostetler.

  12. In response to "whisperedlongings" question. My "guess" would be that "Amish" novels are allowed but others not because when you know from experience how things are, it's easy to see the stories as fiction. When reading fiction about things you know nothing about, it's easier to think things are really like the author is depicting them. That sounds rather convoluted. Did anyone understand what I meant? lol

  13. I recently "read" via audiobook from the library Plain Truth. It was well written, but I didn't care for all the bad language and sex, which is one thing I appreciate not finding in Christian novels. I also didn't think Amish would encourage a divorced woman to remarry.

  14. Tell Paul to pat himself on the back - my mom is a reader of yours and mentioned your column to me. The idea stuck in my head and didn't come back out until I began work on Jayne.

    Glad you enjoyed Jayne's snarkiness!