Amish Fiction 101: Plain Living Goes Popular
In 1997, Amish fiction found its way into the romance genre. Known as "bonnet-rippers," these stories delve into a culture that many readers have only seen portrayed in movies and television. Shows like "Amish Mafia" and "Breaking Amish" have grown in popularity--and so has the romantic subgenre. Readers are stacking their shelves with these stories. Author Serena Miller reveals to Bookish the story behind Amish romances.
When Beverly Lewis's book, "The Shunning," was published in 1997, the staff at Bethany House was worried: Lewis was a popular children's author, but she had never written for adults. What's more, her novel was quite different. Instead of the rather generic, mainstream Christianity most inspirational novelists were expected to portray, Lewis's novel was built around a very specific and isolated religious sect--about which most readers knew next to nothing.
The Old Order Amish who Lewis described lived without electricity, dressed plainly, drove buggies and forbade photographs. What's more, it was a religious culture so strict that it used shunning as a device to keep members within the fold. It was impossible for a publisher or an author to predict if readers would be curious enough buy it--or if they would ignore it completely.
"The Shunning," based loosely upon Beverly's grandmother's story, was indeed a gamble. The staff of Bethany Publishers hoped it might sell 25,000 copies. Instead, sales quickly skyrocketed to more than 125,000 copies sold. The readers were entranced with this peek behind the scenes of one of the most conservative religious sects in America. Since then, "The Shunning" has sold over one million copies and has been made into a stage play and a Hallmark movie.
As readers began to clamor for more, an entirely new genre was born--Amish fiction. Its popularity has grown until now the common wisdom among book sellers is that if you really want a book to leap off the shelves… put a bonnet on it.
At last count, approximately 40 authors are now writing Amish fiction--sometimes at a feverish rate--and to great success. Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, Cindy Woodsmall, Shelley Shepherd Gray, and Mindy Stearns Clark have all hit the New York Times bestseller lists.
Newer authors have sought out different Amish communities to explore. This has confused some readers who were loyal to Lewis's portrayal of the Pennsylvania Amish culture. Some were quick to point out other Amish author's "mistakes." What those readers soon learned is that the Amish culture could not be defined by one Amish settlement. Each group was autonomous and led by a Bishop who helped form the rules, or the Ordnung, by which the group lived. Everything from the manner of dress, to style of buggies, to the prescribed color of curtains and even the language, could change from one location to another.
At first, the Amish hardly knew how to react to their sudden popularity. In Holmes County, Ohio, home to the largest group of Amish in the world, the tourist population suddenly exploded. Millions descended upon that area, with numbers growing every year. With the economy doing poorly, the Amish were grateful for the extra dollars their honey, birdhouses, handmade furniture, baskets, produce stands and other homemade goods brought into their homes.
The Amish--avid entrepreneurs--may have shaken their heads in bewilderment for awhile over people's fascination with their culture--but they have proceeded to capitalize on it by quickly penning their own books about their lives and culture. Technologically more savvy than most non-Amish expect, many are happily self-publishing everything from personal memoirs to children's stories to how-to books now.
A question frequently discussed among writers is how long will the popularity of Amish fiction last? During a book signing, I posed that very question to the owner of a Christian bookstore in the Holmes County area while we watched a tide of tourists roll into his busy store.
"People in today's society are lonely," he said. "They look at the fellowship and the support the Amish enjoy within their close-knit communities and they envy it. They see the integrity of workmanship that goes into the furniture and homes that the Amish build, and they admire it. They see the old-fashioned values instilled in the Amish children, and they are nostalgic for it. They think they are coming to Holmes County to see horses and buggies, and to eat good Amish pie, but what they are truly searching for when they come here, as well as within those Amish novels you write--even though most don't realize it--is God. And that is a hunger that will never go away."
Serena Miller and her minister/carpenter husband live in a southern Ohio farming community. She was delighted when an Amish settlement formed not far from her home and has enjoyed getting to know these hard-working people. Her novel, "An Uncommon Grace," explores the world inside the most conservative Amish sect of all—the Swartzentrubers. Her upcoming novel, "Hidden Mercies," was inspired by a close friend who is a practicing Old Order Amish midwife.