Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies)
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013
344 pp., $26.95
Rachel Marie Stone
Not Real Simple
Construing the Amish this way all but necessitates a degree of appropriation, which is by definition distorting. Amish values and practices may be appealing as they relate to traditional gender roles and motherhood; hard physical labor and education that ends at eighth grade are less worthy of nostalgia. Quilts, barn-raisings, and bread-baking, with all their appeal to multiple senses, feature prominently in the novels; Amish or quasi-Amish recipes sometimes show up in the back. But in the real world, fewer Amish are able to make a living at farming these days; most of their young folks are probably less chaste than the novels would suggest; and, significantly, Amish-themed novels generally don't engage one of the central commitments of the Amish: nonviolence. As Weaver-Zercher observes, the Amish commitment to nonviolence is downplayed in the novels so that "peace" becomes a private and internal matter, as in the notion of "inner peace." What the novels present is therefore not so much the Amish "as they are" but rather a non-Amish idealization of what readers—especially of the conservative evangelical persuasion—wish they were like.
For all this, Weaver-Zercher does not condemn the novels or their faithful readers. Though she is "personally ambivalent about the subgenre," she is "not ready to accuse all of its readers of unproductive nostalgia and fantasy filled escapism." She leaves us with the story of a nonagenarian man, Glenn, who'd farmed in Oklahoma all his life (even remaining through the Dust Bowl). In the last three years of his life, he read almost 90 Amish novels. Considering his story, she suggests that perhaps Glenn was not merely nostalgic; maybe such immersion in Amish fiction is better understood as "represent[ing] readers' desire for a sane, coherent, and communal future, a world in which the drought of hypermodernity has ended."
Once again, I'm living overseas, far from home, and we're just entering winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Will reading an Amish novel, surreptitiously, on my Kindle, make me feel at little warmer, a little closer to something that feels more like home? Improbably, contradictorily, problematically—perhaps it will.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, published earlier this year by InterVarsity Press.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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