I didn’t know Amish romance novels existed until a trip I took a number of years ago to Shipshewana, Indiana. There my uncle directed an Amish and Mennonite cultural center, and I was ostensibly working on a book about Amish and Mennonite culture, so it seemed a place I should go. I had just turned thirty and was beset with ambivalent, indistinct longings for the Mennonite heritage in which I’d been raised, even though the entirety of my twenties had served as an extended exercise in exodus and estrangement. Still, I went, most excited to locate and eat some peanut butter pie made with flaky, lard-infused crust.
The cultural center my uncle ran was called Menno-Hof, hof a Pennsylvania Dutch word that means something close to “farmyard,” though at Menno-Hof the farmyard is neatly pruned, the pond perfectly ovular, the flower garden precisely planted to approximate a quilt. It seemed to me a beautiful lie in need of some freshly dropped horse patties.
After touring the fastidiously curated exhibits in the barn and adjacent whitewashed Amish farmhouse—replete with a recreated reformation dungeon, a small hurricane room with a vibrating floor and powerful fans, a Conservative Mennonite church where a booming God voice commanded that I consider my spiritual fate—I finally wound up in the gift shop on the brink of both ecstatic revelation and nervous breakdown. Many of the wares there approximated the contents of my mother’s root cellar (raspberry jam and apple butter in glass jars) and the theological section of my father’s library (Nonviolence—A Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures, by John Howard Yoder).
The only items there truly unfamiliar to me were two wire racks full of paperbacks, their covers each backlit with the golden glow of God’s everlasting presence and bucolic perfection: wheat fields, corn fields, rivers and barns beneath cerulean or honey skies. A plain-clothed woman in some state of muted emotional duress gazed into the middle distance beneath her white bonnet. I spun through the racks, elated, repulsed. Could there be anything better, or worse, than Amish romance novels?
“Oh yes, people love them,” my uncle said. “They’re very popular.”
I picked the only one I could have possibly purchased, titled Rachel’s Secret, and left with this as the one keepsake from my conflicted return to Amish country. Fitting.
I started reading Rachel’s Secret, a book set in 1855 that tells the tale of a young Amish widow whose simple life is thrown into turmoil one stormy night when a wounded riverboat captain shows up at her door, but I didn’t get very far. While I found lines like “Rachel’s memory book wasn’t stored in her chest of drawers but in her heart” comically wonderful, the appeal of such saccharine prose quickly soured. “Once I picked up an Amish romance novel in the library,” my father—who grew up Amish before his family switched to a less conservative Mennonite church—wrote me after I’d asked him if he’d ever read one, “[but] found the language uninteresting and dead.” Exactly.
Steve Oates, vice president of marketing at Bethany House, one of the foremost publishers of bonnet books, calls them “aspirational” for a booming readership that consists in large part of rural, religious moms who buy their books at Wal-Mart. This genre is positioned at the center of evangelical faith literature, with young Amish women often coming to experience a relationship with God tailored to their own personal plights, a modern concept which runs counter to what community-minded Amish and Mennonite culture has historically been all about. More than once I’ve heard my father scoff at the mainstays of evangelical expression—“having a personal relationship with Jesus” and relating to Jesus as a “best friend”—with a dismissive German ach and flip of his hand.
Given my upbringing in a large Amish-Mennonite family, at the dead end of a dirt road in eastern Ohio, twenty miles away from the only major retailer of note (Wal-Mart), it’s easy to imagine an alternate version of myself, the one who didn’t go to college and still believes in God, clandestinely reading these books in between stirring a stove-top pot of soup and spoon-feeding an infant. It could have happened. In many ways, it should have happened.
But lo, I had already heeded the call of worldliness and sin at a young age, delighting in a different sort of faith literature in my early teens. The Living Hope series, by John Benton, was composed of books titled Carmen or Sheila or Lorene, women who had fallen into sin on the streets as prostitutes, drug addicts, strippers, gang members, felons. She needed love, but where could she find it? one cover asks. Was it too late to start life all over again? Each book ended the same way, with the girl meeting John Benton, going to his halfway house, and accepting Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior. I only read the endings if they included the woman getting the shakes and soiling their bed linens during drug withdrawal. Otherwise, I focused on the first half of the books, their lives in the city, on the streets. I considered these books aspirational. I would live in New York City one day and, instead of shooting drugs, I’d wear high heels and go to museums and live in an apartment where I could order Chinese food whenever I wanted. The future was bright.
But even before these books, when I was a barefoot Mennonite girl avoiding garden chores and unpredictable chickens, I harbored a sacrilegious obsession with a weighty tome on a shelf above my father’s desk called Martyr’s Mirror: The Stories of Seventeen Centuries of Christian Martyrdom from The Time of Christ to A.D. 1660.
Of particular interest in this book to the Mennonite and Amish readerships were the Radical Reformation years of the sixteenth century during which Anabaptists—forebears of the Mennonites and Amish—were tortured and killed for their beliefs. Anabaptists re-baptized each other as adults, flouting infant baptism and drawing the rancor of the religious establishment. They also held fast to devout pacifist beliefs, nearly as far-fetched a philosophy to the society at large of the sixteenth century as it is today.
For my already straying ten-year-old self, Martyr’s Mirror contained within its pages a confusing and provocative convergence of religious passion, sacrificial love, and ecstatic agony. Most excellently, it also contained archaic illustrations, and these were what fascinated me the most. Anneken Heyndricks, bound to a ladder, cast her eyes heavenward in sublime abandon as flames licked her body. George Wanger, a tailor, wasted away in a dungeon, bound with lusty chains. In the most famous etching, Anabaptist hero Dirk Willems rescues a guard who’s pursuing him from the deathly clutches of an icy moat, only to be captured and burned at the stake. Perhaps this is where my impulse toward exodus began, with my silent plea, there on the piano bench, that Willems, please, run away.
If the Mennonite and Amish have anything to offer about romance, it’s this: a heavy book of death and torture, a love letter to all their pursuers, their captors and executioners. Consider the love language of these people something similar to a moaning, choking agony addressed at the universe. Call it holy desperation. Call it devotion. Call it belief in inherent dignity. This is real Amish romance, as real as it gets, a three-hundred-year love affair with life, with the sacredness of life. Forget bonnet books. Forget modernity. It’s all white noise inside the roar of eternity.
Writes my father, pertinent to much and also nearly nothing at all, “Amish wives and husbands will continue to give the world children, trained and formed, who are unable to kill other humans and who are unable to kill for the state.”
Rachel Yoder lives in Iowa City and edits draft: the journal of process. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. More at racheljyoder.com.