In Amish romance novels, racy takes a back seat to values
Among the tourist trinkets at rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike are novels with covers adorned with beautiful, bonneted women and buggies.
For the women readers who have made Amish romance the fastest-growing genre in Christian fiction, these books aren't exactly steamy aphrodisiacs. Hand-holding is a heart-stopping event.
A hero's greatest desire is often to teach an English, or non-Amish, heroine about Jesus. Plots may stir an irresistable urge to bake rhubarb pie.
Most Amish-themed romance novels are written by non-Amish authors and are aimed primarily at an evangelical Christian readership. While Amish women do read them, leaders of Amish communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have actively discouraged or banned them.
The exceptions are books by an Amish woman from Franklin County, whose self-published novels are about to be picked up by a major publisher. Most of the authors have only tangential ties to Amish life.
"They're entertaining, but don't take them as gospel," said Stephen Scott, research associate at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Lancaster County.
The mother of Amish romance is Beverly Lewis, whose first novel "The Shunning" was based on her grandmother's exit from a Mennonite community to marry an English pastor. Since 1997 she has sold more than 12 million books and spawned a genre.
Cindy Woodsmall, whose "When the Soul Mends" spent five weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list last year, will be at Joseph Beth Booksellers on the South Side from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday to sign copies of her just-released "The Hope of Refuge."
Now 50, she grew up in Maryland, where her best friend belonged to the Beachy Amish Mennonites, a liberal sect. She drew on that family for inspiration when she began writing 11 years ago.
"My friend's parents owned a car and they had electricity. But as soon as you walked in their door, there was a cultural difference that you could feel," she said.
Her stories are set among horse-and-buggy folk, but she has made Old Order friends who advise her on plot and read her manuscripts for accuracy. "The Hope of Refuge" is drawn from their stories about visits from grown children of people who had left the Amish community.
Although a few racy Amish-themed romance novels have reached the general market, the big sellers are G-rated and encourage Biblical virtues.
When Cara, the confused heroine of "The Hope of Refuge," is stranded in a barn during a late-night lightning storm and flood, she isn't saved by a hunk in suspenders, but by a vision of Jesus.
Ms. Woodsmall has attracted Amish readers, including some who objected to her negative portrayal of an Amish bishop. "They wrote to say, 'My bishop was not like that,'" she said.
The bishop in her new book is strict, but also wise and kind. Before she created the character she consulted young Amishmen about their experiences.
Her novels create an entire community. Other authors focus more on one relationship and include more elements of a traditional romance.
In "Plain Perfect" by Beth Wiseman, a handsome Amish widower stops his buggy to help a young English woman who is lugging a heavy suitcase down a country road. He likes the way she responds to his horse.
"He watched as her long brown hair danced in the wind, framing her face in layers. She wore no makeup and seemed lacking in the traditional Englisch look, although her brightly colored blouse and calf-length breeches certainly gave her away."
Their first "date" involves a cow giving birth. By the end she's become Amish, they're married and she's pregnant -- in that order.
After similar books showed up in a New Order Amish community in Conneautville, Crawford County, ministerial leaders advised against reading them. Their disapproval had nothing to do with whether the books were accurate.
"Romance books are a great hindrance to a Christian marriage," said Andrew Troyer, a deacon in that community.
He hasn't read any, and he said he knows these are intended to promote Christian virtue. But they encourage the wrong foundation for marriage, he said.
"It gets young people all pumped up for the perfect setting, and that's not reality. Marriage is God-ordained and divine and it's wonderful to have a Christian marriage. But it takes give-and-take."
Shannon Marchese, senior editor for fiction at Ms. Smallwood's publisher Waterbrook Press, the Christian arm of Random House, said Amish-themed books are top sellers among the 25 novels her house publishes each year.
"Fiction takes you to difference places as a form of escapism. There aren't a lot of final frontiers that have remained untapped in fiction. The Amish lifestyle brings with it that other-world quality, the sense of being trapped in time," she said.
Beth Graybill, executive director of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, has identified several elements that are far more common in the books than in life. They include teens running wild, fatal buggy accidents, English becoming Amish, small children kidnapped from Amish communities, and hard-hearted bishops.
In life, she said, serious buggy accidents are rare, and outsiders adapting to Amish life even more so. Kidnappings are unheard of and good bishops outnumber the bad. As for rumspringa -- a period when teens may explore outside ways while deciding whether to make a lifetime commitment to the Amish faith -- most communities have taken steps to respond to past excesses, she said.
"Amish families have worked hard to have it much more supervised, so you don't find the babies out of wedlock and the use of drugs and so on," she said.
Ms. Graybill is most familiar with Ms. Lewis's work, and believes she's worked hard to get it right. But she thinks her characters have too much evangelical angst.
""She's writing out of a pious evangelical mindset where characters agonize about finding God's will for their life," Ms. Graybill said.
For the Amish, right and wrong are clear, and God's will is found in living right, she said
For accuracy she recommends "Rosanna of the Amish," a love story written in 1940 by an Amish-raised author, and the works of Linda Byler, a Franklin County Amishwoman.
While books by Ms. Lewis, Ms. Woodsmall and others are sold in Lancaster shops that cater to tourists, Ms. Byler's are found where the Amish shop. They sell.
"She's something of a celebrity within the Amish community," said Ms. Graybill, who included Ms. Byler in her doctoral dissertation on Amish businesswomen.
When Ms. Byler began writing in 2002, "we had lost our business and our home," she said. "There's not very much that an Amishwoman can do for making money except for quilting or a minimum-wage job. So I decided to try writing because I always liked the Laura Ingalls [Wilder] books."
Her book "Lizzie," was self-published in 2003. Filled with humor about her childhood, it was a hit among the Amish. Sequels followed Lizzie as she grew up, courted and married. Ms. Byler said she is about to sign with a publisher who can reach a mass market, and who plans to print the courtship and marriage books first.
She hasn't read any of the romances written by outsiders, although Ms. Lewis once visited her. So far she has no imitators among the Amish.
"I write with a pen and a composition book. I don't even have a typewriter," she said. "I tell them it's just like quilting. You just keep working at it."
First Published August 16, 2009 12:00 am