It’s Not All Sunshine & Romance

Back in February, Straight off the Page devoted an entire month to the Historical Romance genre. This genre is popular in its own standing, without considering the thousands of novels out there that are purely historical, without the added romantic element. No one assumes that every historical novel is romantic, yet when someone talks of Amish novels, the assumption is always that the novel is a love story. By jumping to this conclusion, we’re neglecting the many Amish novels that deal with a myriad of issues entirely unrelated to love and marriage—and overlooking those that focus on serious and often controversial topics in the midst of a story of courtship and romance. While I will admit that the vast majority of Amish novels feature a happy ending, that doesn’t diminish the fact that their characters have to deal with difficult issues and overcome troublesome obstacles to reach their Happily Ever After.

To be entirely honest, I’m not completely sure where this stereotype about Amish novels being romances even came from. One of the first Amish novels—the one which is often claimed to have started the genre—is The Shunning by Beverly Lewis, the first book in the Heritage of Lancaster County series. While this trilogy does feature a romance, the primary focus is on the main character, a young woman who discovers that she was adopted into her Amish family, and sets out to find her birth mother. It’s essentially a coming of age story about a woman who goes on a journey to figure out who she really is—outwith and within the Amish community where she has grown up. This story of self-discovery is universal, whether you grew up on an Amish farm or the top-floor of an apartment block in a city. The appeal of the Amish novel is often toted as being similarly universal—the majority of people long to simplify their lives in some way, even if they aren’t willing to give up their cars and computers.

I’d like to think that everyone also longs to be loved, but I understand that this doesn’t mean that everyone wants to read a romance novel. But do you have to be a hopeless romantic in order to enjoy Amish fiction? Absolutely not!

Since the release of The Shunning in 1997, the genre has exploded, and developed dozens of sub-genres that appeal to a variety of readers. From the expected—Historical novels about how the Amish lived when they first arrived in America—to the less obvious—Amish Vampires in Space? Apparently there’s an appeal for that too! Some of my favourite “novelty” novels include Courting Cate by Leslie Gould (an Amish retelling of The Taming of the Shrew in first person—a fantastic one for English Lit. majors!), Josiah for President by Martha Bolton (could the solution to America’s problems be an Amish man in the White House? Not a favourite of mine, but it did make for a fun read), and Operation Bonnet by Kimberly Stuart (a quirky and comedic coming of age story about an aspiring PI who takes a job that requires her to go undercover to spy on an Amish drop-out’s old girlfriend).

My favourite sub-genre is probably Historical Amish fiction. You’d think that, given how the Amish have lived the same way for hundreds of years, a novel set in the eighteenth or even nineteenth century wouldn’t be all that different to one set four years ago, but I’ve discovered that this isn’t necessarily the case. I’ve been surprisingly impressed by the way authors have presented the difficulties the Amish have faced during the centuries they’ve lived in the United States. Readers can start with Anna’s Crossing by Suzanne Woods Fisher, which chronicles the journey of a group of settlers from Europe to America in 1737, with vivid descriptions of life onboard a ship at a time when unsanitary living conditions were typical, and disease was rampant. Then readers can check in with the Amish during the Revolutionary War, with Kelly Long’s Arms of Love. The Amish may be praised for their pacifism today, but people were not so sympathetic in 1777. In addition to exploring the ways in which conscientious objectors were treated during the late eighteenth century, Kelly also delves into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, detailing how it was dealt with in a time when very little about this condition was known or understood. Pacifism also crops up in Murray Pura’s Snapshots in History, a series of novels about the Amish during war-time. While Murray writes about the Civil War, WWI and WWII (particularly Pearl Harbor), my favourite of the series has to be The Wings of Morning, simply because it’s set during a time when technology was rapidly developing and forcing the Amish to make decisions about which modern conveniences they were going to embrace. When the novel starts, they have recently rejected the motorcar and the telephone, but are still undecided about electricity and the aeroplane. It’s one Amish man’s interest in flying that gets him pressured into signing up to fight in the war, against his pacifist beliefs. Murray’s historical and aeronautical details are spot on and utterly fascinating, regardless of whether you have a personal interest in aeroplanes.

I’ve been seeing a lot of crossovers between the Amish and Mystery genres recently, particularly cozy mysteries. While some amalgamations may seem a little odd or forced (Amish Vampires? Or Presidents?), this is one that works just as well as Amish Historicals. Vannetta Chapman has written two Cozy Amish Mystery series, focusing on crafts and baking. These novels are lighter on the romance than most of the historicals I’ve read, and the mysteries are well thought-out and intricate. And while I’m not a crafter, Falling to Pieces and A Perfect Square made me wish that I had the time to learn how to quilt! If you’re looking for something a little less cozy, Mindy Starns Clark has written several mysteries set in Amish communities, my favourite being Secrets of Harmony Grove. While her protagonists may not always be Amish, sometimes it’s more interesting to read a novel about an outsider observing the Amish lifestyle and all of its quirks. But what if you can’t decide between an Amish-Historical mash-up or an Amish Mystery? Mindy has teamed up with both Leslie Gould and Susan Meissner to write contemporary novels that are rich in historical backstory and family mysteries. While The Amish Midwife might be a rather simplistic title, I’d urge readers to start with this one and prepare to be tugged into a web of family secrets and Anabaptist history.

Perhaps you’re not a fan of mysteries or all that interested in history. Maybe you just want to read about an Amish community, but you’d like a story with a bit more substance.Because of the simplicity of the Amish lifestyle, you might be mistaken for thinking that Amish novels are similarly simplistic.

Living without television and the internet doesn’t mean that the Amish are free from the same problems we struggle with in our day to day lives, and several authors have showcased this fantastically. Beth Wiseman has to be one of my favourites when it comes to dealing with real life issues, with Seek Me With All Your Heart coming top of the list for its depiction of the recovery of a rape victim. You don’t have to look far to discover authors writing about controversial topics, and some of them are particularly interesting for the way that an issue is dealt with within an Amish community as opposed to the “English” world. Adina Senft’s The Wounded Heart is a fantastic example of this, detailing the struggles of a widow suffering from MS who is considering experimental treatment against the wishes of her community and its Elders. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the decisions the characters made in this book, I became incredibly invested in the protagonist’s struggles. Another novel that got me riled up over the way other characters treated the heroine is The Promise of an Angel by Ruth Reid. I’m not going to lie, I mostly picked this book up because it seemed like the author was just trying to fill a new Amish niche (Amish Angels? Why not?), but this book brought up some interesting questions about whether miracles are still possible in the modern age, and how to deal with church members with differing opinions. This story could have taken place in any church or family, in spite of the bonnet on the front cover of the book.

I could geek out about Amish novels for several more paragraphs (or pages…), but it could become a little overwhelming for newbies to the genre. This is just a small sampling of the many novels now available in this genre, and of the sub-genres that have amassed over the years While I’m partial to historicals, mysteries and issue-based novels, there are plenty of other options out there. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is with the bonnet books, I’d encourage you to seek out a book that contains elements of your favourite genre and give it a shot. You don’t have to be a romantic in order to enjoy an Amish novel, nor do you have to agree with all of the tenets of their faith—in fact, plenty of books feature characters who question the lifestyle (check out Tricia Goyer’s Big Sky series for a fantastic example of this). Life isn’t all sunshine and romance in an Amish novel, and if you don’t believe me, you’ll have to pick up a novel and see for yourself.

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