Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What’s Amiss With the Amish?

As I go through my day, I have the pleasure of seeing what different sorts of books people are reading. Along the way, I get hints about what’s hot and what’s trendy. One of the recent trends that I have been noticing in the past year is the upsurge in the sub-genre of novels about the Amish. Much of what I see being read are stories about plucky heroines living through some sort of life-affirming change. Hmmm. Naturally, my interests being somewhat murkier, I have plenty of questions for these readers.

None of the subjects of my third degrees actually want to be Amish; they just admire what they think they know about that way of life. Mainly, they are interested in books they can rely on not to be filled with gore or blue language. They usually can expect not to run into graphic violence or sexual behavior in the Amish books they're reading. The Amish culture is tantalizingly unknown to most of the readers as well. They are intrigued by the culture of a people that sets itself apart from the mainstream in dress, language and lifestyle. This type of novel is known as "bonnet fiction." I wondered if there were murder mysteries in this category. There were.

One of the series that I looked into, read and liked was P. L. Gaus's Michael Branden series. It begins with Blood of the Prodigal, which takes place in Ohio, where many of the Amish-flavored books are centered. The Amish (or “plain people") and the English (or "vain ones") share a county. Most of the time the Amish keep to themselves and solve their own problems, but when a 10-year-old boy is missing, the local police are called in at the behest of Bishop Eli Miller. A local pastor, Caleb Troyer, and college professor Michael Branden help the Sheriff investigate.

In Broken English, the next in the series, the violence escalates a little as felon Jesse Sands, after serving a sentence of 25 years in a New Jersey prison, is released and quickly heads across Pennsylvania and West Virginia towards Ohio. Behind him he leaves a wide swath of murder and destruction as he exacts a harsh measure of revenge on every innocent who helps him. On a rainy night in Millersburg, he looks for shelter and for something to steal, for he is running out of money. He is surprised by a young woman who has time to dial 911 before she is shot and killed by Sands. Sands is accosted outside the house as he leaves and is arrested.

Later the girl’s father, David Hawkins, asks to see the prisoner and his wish is granted. He has come to forgive Sands in the Amish way. After Hawkins tells Sands that he forgives him, Sands whispers something that makes Hawkins go berserk and nearly throttle the murderer before he is restrained. Hawkins manages to take down the deputy who restrained him and then he leaves. Now no one can find him.

David Hawkins was once a soldier who was trained to kill by the U.S. military. In order to gain some measure of tranquility he contacted an Amish friend of his and did what was necessary to join the Amish community. He had been among the "plain people" for seven years when the tragedy of his daughter's murder struck him. A basic part of the Amish belief is that vengeance belongs to God and He will deal with it in time. Everybody is afraid that David has cracked and reverted to his old way of life, but David’s closest friends have grim faith that he is still abiding by the Amish pacifist ways.

A few days later, another murder takes place and a reporter who had been looking into David Hawkins’s background is found shot in the head. Now the sheriff is confident that David Hawkins has reverted to the military killer that he once was. Professor Michael Branden of the local college and Pastor Caleb Troyer are usually the sheriff’s allies, but now they feel there is more to this story and they begin to build a very different case.

Paul Louis Gaus lives in Wooster, Ohio, a few miles north of Holmes County, where the world’s largest and most varied settlement of Amish and Mennonite people reside. His knowledge of the "plain people" comes from exploring narrow blacktop roads and gravel lanes of the communities whose members live close to the "English" non -Amish people. There are seven books in this series so far.

Now, I have suggested that in Amish-themed stories there is likely to be less graphic violence. Well, that is definitely not the case in Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo.

While also taking place in bucolic areas of Ohio, the story begins with a flashback a description of the actions of a madman known as "The Slaughterhouse Killer" so graphic that is best read with your eyes averted. Unfortunately, what you miss on the first go-round is bound to pop up again and again for your edification. The lone survivor of that years-earlier series of brutal murders was Kate Burkholder, then a young Amish girl who left the faith and her home after the killings. Kate went into law enforcement in the city before returning to her home town of Painter’s Mill as Chief of Police. One snowy day, another body is found with all the hallmarks of a maniacal killing dealt by the Slaughterhouse Killer. Kate has to reconnect with her Amish family in order to solve this case before more girls are killed. In this novel, there is no respite from violence, four-letter words and the only sex is criminal. There are three novels in the Silence series; the next is Pray for Silence and new this year is Breaking Silence.

In a somewhat feminine homage to the movie Witness, Karen Harper has written a story that takes place in, where else, Ohio. Dark Harvest is about an Amish community under siege from an unknown foe. At first, they were targeted by mean-spirited pranks such as the spray painting of quilts hanging on clotheslines. The leaders of the community do not report these things to the authorities because they believe that they are under God’s protection. But when some of the pranks become more dangerous and the lives of children may be at stake, Luke Brand, the son of the ailing current bishop asks the local authorities for help. Into the community comes Kat Lindley, masquerading as Luke’s fiancée. Kat is a policewoman recuperating from an injury and now she is on hand to observe whether the pranksters are local militia who are anti-everything, local carpenters who dislike the Amish carpenters or, even worse, ostensible friends to the Amish. The deaths of two bishops escalate the fears in the community and Kat finds herself in some dangerous situations before she is able to hone in on the culprits. The excellent cooking of her Amish hosts is one perk of the job that is changing the way she looks at herself–but not in a mirror of course, since that is forbidden vanity. This story is the second in a trilogy, bookended by Dark Road Home and Dark Angel, and Harper has started a second Amish series featuring an artist who paints murals on barns in her Amish community.

Most of the stories I have read include a good dollop of Amish culture, but some of them really gloss over the hard parts, or parts you may not agree with, such as the limited education allowed. Still, there is usually a good look at some realities we among the "English" would find hard to adjust to. Hardships from my point of view would be the underwear, or lack thereof (no bras), the eighth-grade end to school, and outhouses. Worst-case scenario would be little light to read by and no time or need to read in any case. No, I would not make it in this life.

The Amish do have groups with varying strictness about certain aspects of their culture; no two sects are exactly the same, except in the basic religious beliefs. But, as one character puts it, we are human too. This aspect is dealt with by the Rumspringa, which allows adolescents a period of time to cut loose without condemnation, so that they can then make a decision to leave the community or choose a life commitment to the faith (as most do).

We all know from current events that despite the efforts a community makes to preserve a way of life, evil people and evil deeds break down the walls. So murder mysteries and crime stories revolving around a reclusive pacifist sect or culture are bound to be written, read and enjoyed for many different reasons. Human frailty spares no one and that is the grist of fiction writing. I avoided reading that nonfiction book about the true crime murders in the Amish schoolhouse. Fiction I can handle; reality, not so much.


  1. Fascinating entry today, thanks. It didn't occur to me that mysteries would be set in the Amish community. I'm enjoying this blog. --Leah

  2. Condo, I also could not read the story about the massacre of the school children. What I did catch from the news, however, was the parents of several of the victims saying publicly that they forgave the shooter - not sure I could ever do that - and the way the Amish community came to the aid of the shooter's family, even though they were not Amish.

    James Michener in his 80s wrote a book called THE NOVEL (not a mystery, sorry) that was set in Pennsylvania Amish country and had several probably realistic Amish characters. His research was usually painstakingly accurate.

    As kids riding through Lancaster County, we used to play a game of 'Find the Amish.' Their farms were always impeccable - no dilapidated buildings or rusting machinery in evidence. That was as much a giveaway as the buggies or clothing.

    An interesting people!

  3. Forgiveness is important to the Amish because it shows that they do indeed live up to the phrase ' Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord'.

    Although I do not live in Ohio we do have local areas populated with Mennonites as well as some Amish. But a lot people around here do travel up to Lancaster county, PA as a regular jaunt to see the views you mention and to buy Amish goods including quilts, furniture and food.

    I read quite a bit of Michener up to his Chesapeake novel. He got to the point that he never let anything good happen to any one. If you married the love of your life, he or she died. If you were barren and finally had a child, sure as shootin' snake bite or diphtheria was in it's future. If you built a beautiful house, it burned down.He got this way I believe during his South Africa book The Covenant. What a change from books like The Source. I will check out THE NOVEL. This means I have forgiven James Michener.

  4. MC, great blog about a fascinating group of people and the mystery fiction set among them.

    Your comments about Michener's harsh treatment of his characters and forgiving him for it made me laugh.

    There are some writers whose books I read very gingerly. I've learned to recognize which characters are likely to arouse that particular creator's urge to commit charactericide. Other authors aren't so predictable, and I'm unprepared for misfortune.

    T. C. Boyle's Van Brunts have a hard row to hoe in WORLD'S END. They must be related to the Old Testament's Job, although some of the Van Brunt clan's suffering is ladled out by one family member to another. This is a spellbinding book of historical fiction set in the Hudson Valley and spanning 300 years.

  5. I really like Linda Castillo although I've only read her first. But it kept me reading all the way through. I also want to mention Judy Clemens who has written a Mennonite mystery worth reading. It's called LOST SONS. Here's the description:

    Detective Stan Windemere's son, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, disappears in the frozen tundra of Russia, and Stan finds himself unable to focus on his job. He soon learns of another lost son, Clayton Kratz, who also disappeared in Russia in 1920. Stan dives into this mystery and prepares for the truth that his own son, like Kratz, may never come home.

    THe Mennonite connection is not subtle but isn't top of mind, either. Some excellent reviews of it on Goodreads.

  6. Great post.. thoughtful entry. I am really enjoying this blog!

  7. LOST SONS sounds quite interesting. I found it on Amazon at a very nice price.Thanks for the heads up Libby.

    I should mention that I just uploaded your JOSEF'S ANGEL to my iPad. The story you wrote about whether an angel appeared to a boy in a concentration camp. This fits in with the mood I am in.

  8. Bravo! Great post. I live in the Shenandoah Valley, where another interesting group lives—the Mennonites, often confused with the Amish. I am intrigued by any culture that set itself apart--particularly those that other people tend to "romanticize." (You just know that they can't all be that pure and wholesome, right?") To me, that's great fodder for story. So I do have Mennonites and and off-shoot cultish group in my books.

  9. Thank you, Maltese. I enjoyed writing that story. It came to me one day while I was Googling German war memorabilia.