While we’re celebrating Amish Fiction this week, it’s important to note that many books get lumped in with this genre that aren’t technically about the Amish, even if their protagonists come from other “Plain” faiths. How can you tell the difference between an Amish novel or a Mennonite one, or even one about Shakers or Quakers? The bonnets on the front cover might look pretty similar, but if you take the time to get to know each Plain group, you’ll learn that there are some very distinct differences. While I don’t consider myself an expert, I would like to share some of my favourite books about communities that are Not Quite Amish.
This group is the one that gets mistaken for Amish more often than any other, and that’s understandable considering that they’re descended from the same group of Anabaptists headed by Menno Simmons in the sixteenth century. The Amish broke away from the original denomination in the late seventeenth century, under Jakob Ammann. As the years went on, the groups split further into Old Order and New Order (for both Amish and Mennonites). While these groups may have specific theological differences, they can look very similar to an outsider, particularly because of their style of dress and refusal to use certain modern conveniences. While many Amish and Mennonites can tell what district another Plain person is from based on the style of their bonnet or apron, these differences can easily be missed by an Englisher.
So where do you start when it comes to Mennonite fiction? It really depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re wanting to learn about some of the intricacies of the Mennonite faith, The Narrow Path by Gail Sattler is a good option. Focusing on a woman from a more modern congregation and a man from an Old Order church, this contemporary romance explains a lot of the differences and similarities between New Order and Old Order Mennonites, through a sweet comedy about a couple forced to work together on a church play. Something Old by Dianne Christner, the first in the Plain City Bridesmaids series, also displays how some aspects of the Mennonite lifestyle are changing in the modern era. This novel would particularly appeal to young adults, as it focuses on a group of young Mennonite women trying to find where they belong in relation to their faith and the outside world.
Kim Vogel Sawyer is particularly known for her Mennonite novels, one of the earliest being Waiting for Summer’s Return. Even if you’re not a big fan of “Plain” fiction, this one will appeal to historical fans, particularly those who enjoy novels about early settlers and homesteading. Focusing on a widow who has lost her husband and children but is determined to find work in the Mennonite community where her family is buried, this story will definitely pull at your heartstrings. If you’re looking for something a little more modern, Kim has also written a series of Middle Grade/Young Adult novels about a Mennonite teen named Katy Lambright, who fights for the right to attend a public high school. The first in the series, Katy’s New World, would appeal to many preteens who are entering a new situation and feela bit like a fish out of water.
Historicals and Young Adult novels aren’t the only crossovers featuring Mennonites. Nancy Mehl has written a number of romantic suspense novels containing Mennonite characters, one of the most recent releases being Inescapable, the first novel in the Road to Kingdom series. Another contemporary offering is The Outcast by Jolina Petersheim, a novel about a young Mennonite woman who is forced out of her community when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock and refuses to name of the father of her child. Shunned by her community, at the urging of her brother-in-law, Rachel has to make some difficult decisions when medical issues could put her child’s life at stake.
There are even some fascinating mainstream novels featuring Mennonites, including Irma Voth by Miriam Toews. Based loosely on the author’s experience acting in the 2007 film Silent Night, the novel focuses on a young Mennonite newlywed whose life is disrupted when a film crew arrives to make a film about her Mexican community. The author herself is also of Mennonite descent, making the story even more intriguing.
Ann H. Gabhart is definitely the most well-known author of Shaker fiction, resurrecting a faith that has almost completely died out. Like the Amish and Mennonites, the Shakers were a peaceful people, but due to their belief in celibacy, they relied entirely on conversions to keep their community growing. Ann’s novels often depict the conflicts between the Shakers’ pacifist beliefs and the tumult of the outside world. Her first Shaker novel, The Outsider, focuses on a new convert who sought refuge and stability in a Shaker community, but begins to to question her faith’s denial of romantic relationships when she meets a young male doctor. Although romance does feature in this novel (because we know how much readers love their Plain romances!), the novel’s focus on the war of 1812 and the details about the Shaker faith at this time are fantastic, and I’d probably class it more as a Historical than a Romance. Ann’s upcoming release, The Innocent, also focuses on Shakers during wartime, this story being about the wife of a Union doctor who takes refuge in a Shaker community when her husband goes missing.
Modern-day Quakers might not stand out as much as Older Order Amish and Mennonites, but there are certainly a lot of historical novels that depict the struggles they experienced in years gone by. Much like their Amish and Mennonite Bretheren, the Quakers have set themselves apart from society on particular issues, which naturally caused contention with those around them.
Much like the Amish, the Quakers have strong pacifist beliefs. Siri Mitchell displays how difficult it can be to hold on to these beliefs during war time in The Messenger, a novel about a young Quaker woman during the Revolutionary War. Hannah Sunderland’s brother has run off to join the army and landed himself in jail, and she’s struggling to sit back and do nothing while he, and many other men, suffer in prison. Her desire to help her brother brings her into contact with a man determined to break the prisoners out of jail, but can she forsake her beliefs in order to help him?
It’s common knowledge that the Quakers were outspoken about their views on slavery, and that they played a large part in the Underground Railroad. Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana by Melanie Dobson does a fantastic job of depicting the Quakers contributions to the anti-slavery movement, focusing on a young woman who operates an Underground Railroad stop and writes against slavery under a penname in a newspaper. As the title might suggest, there is a romance in this novel, but it’s the historical detail that really shines the brightest. Melanie has written other novels about Plain groups, including the Amana Colonies (Love Finds You in Amana, Iowa & Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa), Moravians (Love Finds You in Nazareth, Pennsylvania), and Amish (The Silent Order). If you’re interested in learning about some of the lesser-known Plain communities out there, Melanie’s back-catalogue is a pure treasure-trove!
Are you an Amish purist, or do you enjoy novels about other Plain communities? Are there any that we missed off this list? Please let us know!