Melanie Dobson is the award-winning author of seven contemporary and historical novels, including The Silent Order and Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa. Her suspense novel The Black Cloister received the Foreword Book of the Year award in 2009 for religious fiction, and Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana was picked as the Best Book of Indiana (fiction) in 2010. Melanie is the former corporate publicity manager at Focus on the Family, and she worked in public relations for fifteen years before she began writing fiction full time. She grew up in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, and she now resides with her family near Portland, Oregon. More information about Melanie and her books is available at www.melaniedobson.com.
Fascination with Amish Fiction
Streetlights and power lines faded away along with my confidence as I drew closer to Eli and Mary’s farmhouse that wintery night in March. As part of the research for my suspense novel The Silent Order, I was spending the night with an Old Order Amish couple near Sugarcreek, Ohio.
I drove a little slower on the country road, nervous about what to expect when I arrived. In my ignorance, I’d already made up my mind what an Old Order Amish woman would be like: judgmental, stern, and certainly not accepting of an Englischer like me, who wasn’t sure she could survive without my cell phone, WiFi, or hair dryer.
But as I drove into their snowy yard that evening, Mary greeted me with a warm smile and wave. Then she cheerfully guided me through the snow, to the guest suite in their basement. Opening her gas-powered refrigerator, she pulled out a bowl filled with apples, grapes, and bananas along with fresh pastries, and in that moment, I no longer felt like an outsider. I felt like a welcomed guest in her home.
Fascination with the Amish and their culture has led to a new genre that is now one of the fastest growing within the romance category, and the popularity of Amish fiction doesn’t seem to be fading away anytime soon. Authors like Cindy Woodsmall and Beverly Lewis have gone far beyond the stereotypes, like I had in my mind, of the Amish and captured the heart of what it means to be part of this culture and community.
Why are so many of us fascinated with people like Eli and Mary and the plain, quiet life that they’ve chosen to live? The popularity of this genre seems to involve more than escaping into the simplicity of the Amish world. I believe we are intrigued by the devout faith of the Amish (and other religious communities) and the freedom they have from the worries of this world, along with the value they put in their family, friendships, and the fire God has placed into their hearts.
Faith: One reason inspirational “bonnet fiction” tops the charts in the romance genre is because readers long for an unyielding faith in God. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Amish have a radical heritage that stretches back to the 1500s when many Anabaptists were killed for their faith. The Amish escaped to the United States in the 1800s, but today they still suffer persecution for their religious beliefs through ridicule and sometimes physical abuse.
In a recent USA Today article about the popularity of Amish fiction, Deirdre Donahue wrote, “Even more exotic to most secular Americans (than the slower pace of Amish fiction) are the values the Amish cherish: humility, obedience, and pacifism.” These values stem from their devout faith in God and their willingness to be accountable to the authorities they believe God has placed in their lives.
Freedom: As a child growing up in Ohio, I was always a bit jealous that the Amish children were allowed the freedom of roaming barefoot through the grocery store during the summer heat while I squirmed in my socks and tennis shoes. Even as a child, I longed for the simplicity of their lives. Playing in the creek. Riding in a buggy. The lantern light glowing in their windows.
Now as an adult, I still long for that simplicity at times. The freedom to thumb my nose at the world’s standards and break free from the dual prisons of materialism and unending busyness. During my stay with my new Amish friends, I spent hours sipping tea and talking with them about their eight grown children, the phenomenon of Amish fiction, and how they visited the beach in North Carolina many years ago. Then Mary and I finished our quiet evening by piecing together a jigsaw puzzle on her kitchen table.
Not once did I miss checking my e-mail, nor did I long for the sounds of the TV or cars racing by outside the window. The quietness and the simplicity seemed to strip away at the stresses I’d been carrying around.
They had plenty of work to do in their home, but they also realized the importance of stopping to enjoy the simplest and perhaps most fulfilling pleasures of life.
Family & Friendships: Texting and Facebook postings often replace conversations today and hours spent with good friends. There is a peculiar safety in social media. With a click of the mouse, we can end a relationship if it gets messy, and if we choose, we can avoid the painful parts of other people’s life. While there is value in keeping in touch with family and friends, sometimes we replace authentic community with a sterile, online community, and we miss out on the refinement and beauty that comes from walking with one another through fire.
God has created us to be in community with one another to serve and worship. Faith communities like those people living in the Amana Colonies have discovered this. For eighty years, the Amana people lived in true community. Like the Christ followers in the book of Acts, they ate together, served together, and worshipped together every day. None of them made money during this era, but every need was provided for through the hard work and resourcefulness of their society. Members were free to leave the Amana Society whenever they wanted, but very few people did. They recognized the value of close relationships and thrived within these.
Fire: When I wrote about the Quakers in Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana, my main character was passionate about helping runaway slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. Throughout history, the Quakers were staunch abolitionists, and in this story, Anna Brent sacrifices everything to harbor these runaways.
The faith of the Quakers was woven throughout their lives, not only in their minds, but also in their hands and feet as they reached out to others in Jesus’ name. The Amish are passionate about their faith and their families. The Amana people about their friendships and the inspired testimonies from God. And they find meaning in these passions instead of searching for it in things that never satisfy, like money, status, or power.
During my visit in Sugarcreek, I quickly forgot that I didn’t have phone service or an Internet connection or an outlet to dry my hair. I was caught up in the friendship and faith and the fire of my new friends. Just like what happens when I read a good story, the outside world seemed to slip away, and I understood even more why so many enjoy reading about the Amish and other communities of faith. And I understood why we long for a taste of their faith, freedom, friendships, and fire in our own lives.