So I finally broke down and bought a Kindle. I’d been resisting the purchase because I love the idea of a physical book, and because a lot of my reading comes in the from of free books I read in order to review. With some upcoming travel on the horizon, I realized that one little device would be a lot nicer to carry than 35 pounds of reading material. More than one person told me that I could get all kinds of free or cheap books for the Kindle, so I finally bit the bullet and pulled out the debit card.
Once it arrived, I did a couple of quick searches for freebies, and downloaded a few books I would never consider reading otherwise. One of those books was a work of “Amish fiction” (pulp fiction set in Amish culture) written by a popular Christian author. There has been an explosion of these books over the last several years. It is an entire subcategory of CBA fiction, and the genre continues to grow in popularity. I attended a writer’s conference about four years ago, and an acquisition editor said he felt that Amish fiction was probably peaking. Boy, was he ever wrong.
I am the target demographic for these books: middle-aged, Caucasian (well, I’m sort of Caucasian, for the purposes of this discussion), suburban, church attending, conservative (well, I’m sort of conservative, for the purposes of this discussion). However, I rarely read pulp fiction – or much other fiction – for that matter. But hey! It was free! So I gave this horse-and-buggy story by one of the big names in Amish fiction a ride on my Kindle.
I’m not going to review the book because I’m not sure what I could say about it, in all truth. The Amish elements like characters calling their fathers “Daed” (Dad) or using the phone booth located by the road to call an “English” (non-Amish) driver for a ride held mild cultural interest for me. The plot was predictable, though the author did surprise me with one twist near the end of the story. I would have kicked myself to Cleveland if I’d paid actual shekels for the product instead of getting it for free. It just wasn’t my cup of herbal tea.
I read while trying to understand what the draw of this genre is for modern readers. I get it that the Amish and Old Older Mennonite characters present an intact, functioning, countercultural subculture in our confusing world. Lots of written and unwritten rules define the way they interact with their larger culture, creating boundaries and a definite separation. They tilt strongly into the “not of” part of “in the world, but not of it”.
The middle-aged women buying armloads of these titles are, perhaps, enjoying the escape into a fantasy subculture that mirrors their own desire for intact families, a deep sense of community and simple expressions of faith without the alienation and mess of our modern world. Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, the subprime mortgage mess and churches large enough to required a staff of parking attendants do not exist in these books.
Though I didn’t love the book I read, I had a moment of clarity when I realized that the life portrayed in its pages was perhaps just a wee bit closer to the images of the life I imagined when I first began following Christ more than half a lifetime ago. No, I didn’t imagine wearing a starched headcovering or hitching up my buggy to my horse to run up to the Jewel, but I did dream of a life shaped by faith, filled with family and tightly woven into spiritual community.
A couple of days after I finished the book in an hour and a half, the most recent issue of Christianity Today arrived with a helpful piece by Eric Miller entitled “Why We Love Amish Romances”. (Probably not so coincidentally, there are also a couple of full-page display ads for new releases of Amish romances.) Miller notes, “…I’d look at our own jam-packed, lonely, high-tech life and sigh. Make no mistake, the allure (of the Amish) is real, and it’s rooted in a sound intuition: that freedom means order, an order beyond the harum-scarum pace of the freeway, beyond the noise of our little digital jukeboxes.”
The genre’s popularity, perhaps, is a subtle indictment of both our lifestyle and our churches. Every time one of my fifty-something sisters plunks down $13.99 for an Amish book, she is saying that she wants something more – and maybe something much, much less – than the life she is living here and now.
Me, too, sister. Me, too.
How do you account for the popularity of this genre? Have you ever read any Amish fiction? If so, what did you enjoy most about it?