I grew up in south central Pennsylvania. Around us lived a number of Mennonite families and we were an hours’ drive from Lancaster County, home of numerous Amish communities with colorful names like Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, Paradise, etc. Mennonite congregations could run the gamut from being pretty much like everyone else, to ultra-conserative. Some sects would buy new black cars, take them home and spray paint all the chrome black.
The Amish, of course were different. They lived off the grid. They did not use anything with an internal combustion engine—hence the horse and buggy that has become iconic of the Amish. I have always been fascinated with the Amish. Why do they not use technology beyond a certain date or time? I mean, they use the wheel and that is technology.
So, when I came across Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish by Joe Mackall I just had to have it and read it. I was not disappointed. Here’s the book description from Amazon (I don’t usually do this, but reinvent the wheel?):
Joe Mackall has lived surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish community of Ashland County, Ohio, for over sixteen years. They are the most traditional and insular of all the Amish sects: the Swartzentrubers live without gas, electricity, or indoor plumbing; without lights on their buggies or cushioned chairs in their homes; and without rumspringa, the recently popularized “running-around time” that some Amish sects allow their sixteen-year-olds.
Over the years, Mackall has developed a steady relationship with the Shetler family (Samuel and Mary, their nine children, and their extended family). Plain Secrets tells the Shetlers’ story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuel’s nephew Jonas finally rejects the strictures of the Amish way of life for good, after two failed attempts to leave, and his bright young daughter reaches the end of school for Amish children: the eighth grade. But Plain Secrets is also the story of the unusual friendship between Samuel and Joe. Samuel is quietly bemused—and, one suspects, secretly delighted—at Joe’s ignorance of crops and planting, carpentry and cattle. He knows Joe is planning to write a book about the family, and yet he allows him a glimpse of the tensions inside this intensely private community.
These and other stories from the life of the family reveal the larger questions posed by the Amish way of life. If the continued existence of the Amish in the midst of modern society asks us to consider the appeal of traditional, highly restrictive, and gendered religious communities, it also asks how we romanticize or condemn these communities—and why. Mackall’s attempt to parse these questions—to write as honestly as possible about what he has seen of Amish life—tests his relationship with Samuel and reveals the limits of a friendship between “English” and Amish.
I can’t say that my questions about the whys of Amish ways were answered, but that wasn’t really the gist of the book. The book was about relationships. The relationships that the author developed with the Shetler family and what he learned about the Amish along the way.
I admire the Amish for their simplicity, but more for their persistence, group identity and integrity. Think about it—in a world where everyone seems to conform to the status quo, the Amish have maintained their separateness and group identity. Certainly some Amish teenagers leave the faith and go over to the english. But, by and large, most, upon reaching maturity, adopt the faith of their elders.
While I admire their simplicity and at times flirt with the idea of wouldn’t life be easier if we lived like the Amish? I would never become Amish—for one thing, they work harder than I want to at my age! And, I can’t grow a good looking full beard. But, beyond those, if you look at their theology, it’s very works based, with a diminished view of grace and heightened sense of legalism.
For anyone looking for insight into the world of the Amish, told with compassion, empathy and humor, Plain Secrets is your book.