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More Titillated Than Thou

How the Amish conquered the evangelical romance market

Peering out from a wire rack in a grocery store was a religious vision of sorts: a paperback romance novel that neatly summed up classic yearning, confining cultural norms, and the hazards of defiled purity. At the center of all this familiar masscult longing and inner turmoil was an unlikely heroine: a young Amish woman, barefoot, clutching a suitcase, her white-bonneted head turned away from a mysterious man in the foreground. Here, plopped down in a hormonally charged set piece, was a figure straight out of the homey folk tradition known as Amish country pastoral. Though this pious woman couldn’t seem more out of place, the book is called Found ; it is the third entry in a series called The Secrets of Crittenden County. There were other books, too, in the rack—The Quilter’s Daughter, Leaving Lancaster—clearly meant to evoke the remote corner of central Pennsylvania where we were standing.

My sister and I grew up in the heart of Amish country, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We came across these curious specimens on a routine shopping trip to a rural grocery store. Like people growing up anywhere, we share a complicated relationship with the customs of our homeland, but seeing them serve as the backdrop of a faith-based fiction franchise was a blow to our hard-won sense of place. It was a bit like what many rent-strapped single women writers in New York must have felt when they first encountered long-lunching, fashion-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame, or how Appalachian teens might dissect descriptions of District 12 in the Hunger Games franchise.

My family isn’t Amish, but we’re probably the closest thing—we hail from nearly three hundred years of colonial American Mennonite stock: cussed true believers who moved from Germany to flourish in the free-thinking heart of William Penn’s settlement in the New World. Like the Amish, Mennonites are Anabaptists—adult-baptizing practitioners of an ardent brand of European Protestant pietism that often overlapped with Old World peasant political uprisings, but served in the American setting as a forcing bed for the Amish separatist quest for purity and the Mennonite traditions of pacifism and communal self-help. As the heirs to an easily misunderstood spiritual legacy, we feel protective of our Anabaptist background when it becomes a product label.

The commercialization of the Amish brand is, of course, nothing new. My sister and I have a long familiarity with kitschy Amish books: guidebooks to Pennsylvania Dutch country, Amish “wisdom” books, “Plain” cookbooks. But the strange cover of Found represented something new in this faintly comical face-off between the self-segregated communities of faith we knew and a cultural mainstream incorrigibly curious about what it’s done to offend pious Anabaptist sensibilities. For a tortured Amish conscience to be front and center on a mass-market paperback meant that the bonnet-clad and buttonless Amish were merging, however awkwardly, with more commercially tried-and-true narratives of tested devotion and romantic longing.

At a minimum, the novel was suggesting that the Amish represent something more than an exotic, out-of-the-way religious curiosity in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Shelley Shepard Gray, the author of the Crittenden County series, who sees her writing as a way to promulgate her more conventional brand of evangelical faith (she’s a Lutheran), seemed to be signaling that the Amish experience, long the object of prurient curiosity from an intensely modern (if only intermittently secular) American mainstream, was ready for prime time. The woman on the cover of Found could be an inspirational symbol of female spiritual self-discipline, or a cleaned-up lady on the make of the sort featured in endless Danielle Steel contributions to the bodice-ripper genre. My sister and I each purchased a copy of Found , agreeing that we would read it and report back.

But when we spoke on the phone a week later, we discovered that we didn’t have all that much to talk about. We had both finished reading the novel, but we had to concede the book had clearly not been written for us. We had enough distance from the inspiration genre to declare it unliterary, a critical wasteland—flat writing, over-the-top drama, a studied lack of awareness of the wider world—and enough proximity to Anabaptism, to Plain communities, to find the story false and idealized. If these books were selling millions of copies, we knew they weren’t selling to us. Who reads this stuff, anyway?

Spiritual Retreat

Tons of people, it turns out. There are around three hundred thousand Amish people in America, but millions upon millions of readers are choosing to live vicariously in a pristine Amish settlement of the imagination, where zippers, cars, and many of the breathlessly touted gadgets of the digital age are forbidden. While you’d be hard pressed to find a more stolidly patriarchal religious community than the Amish, who prohibit divorce and deny women any alternative to obeying their male masters in the home and any position of spiritual authority in the church, the audience for this curious genre is overwhelmingly female.

Whether readers are motivated by a hazy Luddism or a nostalgia for the old male-supremacist order of things, there’s no mistaking the potent commercial lure of the “bonnet books”—so called because of the young Amish women plastered on their covers. In less than a decade, bonnet titles have overtaken bestseller lists, Christian and non-Christian alike. More than eighty such books will be published in 2015, up from twelve titles in 2008. Three novelists, Beverly Lewis (who launched the genre in 1997 with The Shunning), Cindy Woodsmall, and Wanda Brunstetter, are together responsible for the sale of more than twenty-four million books. Today, there are approximately thirty-nine authors of Amish-themed fiction; their collective output works out to one Amish fiction book published every four days. Often wrongly called “bonnet rippers,” these novels seldom offer fare any more lurid than a much-regretted kiss. Sex is always offstage, and mere carnal longing is usually mastered by the more powerful desire to do God’s will.

Still, it would be a mistake to suppose bonnet books are bereft of all prurience; their treatment of spiritual questions is itself oddly lustful, given their penchant for containing spiritual inquiry and experience within the strict bounds of faintly illicit-sounding modes of sectarianism and separatism. One clue to the complex dynamics of longing, release, and liberation within bonnet books might come from the spiritual affiliation of their authors: rather than being Amish or Anabaptists more broadly, they are usually evangelical women. Products of a spiritual subculture famously rent by warring impulses of modern innovation (in economic and political life) and traditional-literalist retreat (in cultural and religious conflicts), the bonnet books nonetheless offer an unexpected respite from noisy culture-warfare: they arrive at placid, and blissfully simple, resolutions to questions terminally unsettled in the broader American spiritual marketplace.

This helps explain, among other things, the centrality of geographic separatism in bonnet books. The simple remoteness of Amish life, seemingly in both time and space, accounts for most of the plot tension and vicarious readerly interest in the genre. Readers are inclined to marvel at the simplicity and rustic purity of all things Amish, and at the same time tease themselves with the challenge that all these titles implicitly lay down: Could you, reader, live like this?

The Amish communities described in Found or The Shunning are idealized settings that effectively permit readers to try on particular evangelical values. Put another way, a bonnet book plots out a wish-fulfillment fantasy for evangelical women that roughly corresponds to what Burning Man represents for the utopian hipster: a makeshift safe space for their most dearly held moral imaginings—a place where the conventional rules of engagement with the reality principle are provisionally suspended. Shelley Shepard Gray (who has penned an impressive twenty-seven titles in the genre) writes of her recent Amish series Return to Sugarcreek, “To me, Sugarcreek is everything that says family and faith and beauty.” The biography page on Brunstetter’s website explains that

Wanda’s primary attraction to the Amish is their desire to live a devout Christian life that strives to honor God, work hard, and maintain close family ties. Whenever she visits her Amish friends, Wanda finds herself drawn to their peaceful lifestyle, sincerity, and close family ties, which is in stark contrast to the chaos and busyness that plagues so many modern “Englishers.”

Like all genre fiction, Amish bonnet books adhere to a strict set of plot conventions: a young, single woman meets a love interest early in the book; obstacles and misunderstandings keep the lovers apart; and eventually, events unfold so as to remind our heroine that only faith in God and belief in herself can guide her through challenges to ultimate happiness—i.e., marriage and motherhood. In her 2013 study of Amish fiction, Thrill of the Chaste, Valerie Weaver-Zercher writes:

When readers articulate their appreciation that Amish-themed novels are “clean reads”—books largely free of sexual scenes and passion-driven plotlessness that would offend their conservative sexual ethics—their words express not just a personal literary preference but a dissident value system.

The genre’s intense fidelity to canons of “sexual chastity,” Weaver-Zercher argues, places it firmly at odds with the main run of middlebrow romance fiction. Yet at the same time, the spectacular commodification of Amish faith and Amish folkways that has sprouted up alongside the runaway success of the bonnet book also indicates that this particular dissident value system stops well shy of the sort of robust challenge to capitalist modernity that sent the Amish packing to their farms and buggies in the first place.

My Savior, My Self

Fiction, after all, is fiction—it offers escape from the strictures of our individual experiences and worldviews. But to enter the world of Amish fiction is to wholly leave behind the world as it exists. I don’t just mean ringing phones, CNN, computer screens, and interminable commutes—although, yes, these are technologies that the Amish live without (albeit with more exceptions than you’d imagine)—but more fundamentally, the world of crime, racism, 50 percent divorce rates, unwanted pregnancies, systemic pollution, same-sex marriage, college tuition fees, healthcare reform, endless war, and political gridlock. All the complexities of contemporary life are absent. It’s as if the evangelical authors have airbrushed their own ideal world onto the Amish vernacular, gently erasing the sharp, contested edges of the pietist denominational tradition.

While some books may chronicle a young heroine’s agonizing decision to leave the Amish community (or join it), the choice is always an intensely personal one—a matter of knowing God’s purpose for her, not of mulling over the long-standing theological premises the community is based on, like nonresistance, pacifism, and conscientious objection. In actual Amish country, these demanding faith commitments count for far more than this or that individual believer’s spiritual journey. Many Amish and Anabaptist believers have paid for these theological premises with their lives—as children in these communities learn in their typically thorough religious instruction in Amish or Mennonite tradition. Even the everyday burdens of Amish life, such as birthing and feeding an average of seven children, are either unaddressed in Amish fiction or transformed glibly into blessings.

Bonnet books also paper over the strict gender roles of the Amish community with a kind of conservative “feminism”—separate but equal, spiritually subservient—that matches up closely with the divided loyalties of many evangelical women, if not with the more austere outlook of devout Amish women. While the heroines are characterized as independent, curious, and seeking, they ultimately find happiness in “traditional” ways: marrying the man God chooses for them and having as many children as He wishes to give. Brunstetter, who is also a professional ventriloquist, cannily uses a male protagonist to give fullest voice to this regressive and essentialist feminine ideal. Jonah, the bearded dreamboat suitor at the center of the action in A Revelation in Autumn, daydreams about his soon-to-be-altered domestic circumstances thusly:

If I’m ever fortunate enough to make Meredith my wife, I wonder how many children we’ll have and if they’ll have my dark curly hair or be blessed with Meredith’s beautiful strawberry-blond hair. Would our daughters have Meredith’s sweet personality? Would the boys want to learn the trade of buggy making from me?

This juxtaposition of an obliging, male-pleasing “sweet personality” and the serious manual work at the center of the Amish idyll speaks volumes about the kind of balance that fans of the bonnet book are seeking to strike in their own literary imaginations. If men can shoulder the work, then the least women can do is please their men, in this nineteenth-century division of domestic labor. At the same time, the vision of pleasure here is anything but carnal—the erotic interest of the average bonnet book is roughly akin to that of a Victorian domestic romance circa 1840.

Many readers have told ethnographers or commented on blogs that they are drawn to Amish fiction because the books are “clean,” lacking even the most subtle forms of titillation, another accommodation to evangelical culture. Obviously, the nation’s 90 million evangelicals are having sex, but their community’s preference is to pretend that they don’t—and certainly not outside the bonds of heterosexual marriage. The preferred way to quarantine women’s bodies from illicit ideas and physical contact is not to address male-female power dynamics, provide sex education, or even bolster women’s agency, but to “protect” women, hide them away, and shame their sexuality. The world depicted in Amish fiction is a projection of these strictures. It is the ultimate purity culture.

The erasure of sexuality from female evangelical lives is doomed to fail on its own terms in the real world. But that’s precisely the chaste thrill of the bonnet book: a sexless life can be realized, in lushly rendered pastoral detail, in a fictive environment where virginal young women are heroines, wholly faithful to God. In many ways—and probably for many reasons—readers see bonnet books as something other than mere romantic novels. “They are romances,” one reader told Weaver-Zercher, “but they also tell you how to be saved.”

Deus Ex (Nullus) Machina

To judge by the average bonnet book, it takes a tremendous amount of unlikely coincidence and mistaken-identity intrigue to be saved. Here, for example, is the plot of Brunstetter’s six-book series A Lancaster County Saga: After little more than a year of marriage, Meredith Stolzfus and her husband, Luke, both members of the Amish community, have grown apart. Luke has been unable to find work since losing his job as a furniture maker. But their problems seem over when Luke’s uncle in Indiana offers to apprentice him to his own trade of tombstone engraving. The kindly uncle sells Luke the necessary tools to establish a new profession back in Lancaster. Meredith is reluctant to see Luke travel to Indiana in the middle of winter, but he boards the bus anyway. In the Philadelphia bus station, Luke encounters a drug-addled homeless man who forces Luke to trade clothes with him and then beats Luke unconscious. Using Luke’s bus ticket, the attacker continues on toward Indiana, but a tanker truck loses control in the deep snow and collides with the bus. All passengers, including Luke’s attacker, are killed and burned beyond recognition.

After she absorbs the news of Luke’s apparent death, Meredith tries to find solace in their unborn child. Meanwhile, Luke—identified only as a homeless John Doe—is in a coma in a Philadelphia hospital, where two nurses, who pray diligently for his recovery, care for him. Months pass as Meredith struggles with her grief and new motherhood, but a young man, Jonah, who has moved to the community to work with his father as a buggy maker, befriends her. Despite protest from Luke’s family, who fear that Jonah’s interest will estrange them from their grandchild, Meredith agrees to be courted by Jonah, a good, godly man whose only apparent flaw is a fear of water. As a child, he nearly drowned but was saved by a boy his age with unforgettable turquoise eyes.

Good women patiently wait in scrubbed kitchens, beside steaming kettles or steaming pies, drying dishes while their emotions swirl.

Luke eventually awakens from his coma in the Philadelphia hospital but has no memory of who he is. The nurses, who are siblings, invite him to move in with them while he works to recover his memory. He is attracted to one of them, Susan, but is reticent to pursue a relationship with her until he remembers his past. The sisters, who have long been enamored with the simple and plain lives of the Amish, take Luke on a trip to Lancaster County. Still he remembers nothing, even as he and Meredith cross paths. On the eve of Meredith’s marriage to Jonah, Luke experiences a cascade of memories. He remembers that he is Amish and married and rushes to Meredith. Everyone is in joy and shock, including Jonah, who looks into Luke’s turquoise eyes and realizes that it was Luke who saved him from drowning in a swimming hole when they were children.

With its many twists and turns, Brunstetter’s tale recapitulates the plot lines that govern the bonnet book genre. All these books are rife with mistaken identities, naive flirtations with the shiny objects of the world, and blind quests for authentic fellow believers. Violence is a drug-induced encroachment from urban places that lures and tempts but is ultimately exposed when God metes out His own flaming justice. Good men—future husbands and fathers—put their trust in non-mechanical tools, family provisions, and honest labor that involves kindly gestures like pulling weeds or carrying heavy boxes. Good women patiently wait in scrubbed kitchens, beside steaming kettles or steaming pies, drying dishes while their emotions swirl. Their inner turmoil is finally stilled by declarations of religious and romantic passion from their perfect only mate. There is no coincidence in the world because God works in strange ways, ways that are yet stranger and amplified in bonnet books, because He’s teaching very earnest moral lessons to His characters and readers alike.

Bonnet books may follow the same emotional arc as romance novels, but in both their implausible plotting and didactic moralism, they can also claim a more unlikely forebear: the books by Horatio Alger that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, served to reconcile a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing America to the timeless virtues of honesty and the rural hearth. Alger’s rags-to-respectability novels doted on young men of the urban working class who came into success by virtue of their pluck, enterprise, and trustworthiness. Hailed at the time as model studies in character-shaping for the robust American capitalism of the early industrial age, Alger’s novels were actually pinched studies in pastoral nostalgia—compensation, perhaps, for the ungainly moral compromises and Darwinian opportunism of Gilded Age America.

True, bonnet books have swapped out their protagonists’ gender identities and displaced nearly all of the urgent moral conflict to the Pennsylvania countryside. But like their forebears in the Alger oeuvre, bonnet books give the whole game away in their conspicuous reliance on extravagant coincidences, mistaken-identity subterfuges, and other clumsy and implausible deus-ex-machina plot resolutions. As Ragged Dick did, our plucky, bonneted female saints-in-training must ultimately place their faith in the random and freakish workings of luck. Hard work and deference to patriarchy are ultimately beside the point; in the end, the Almighty’s all-too visible hand swoops down and smooths out all the human intrigues.

Weaver-Zercher notes another aspect of Amish fiction that makes the books popular among evangelicals: their unrelenting whiteness. Amish communities are almost without exception racially homogenous, descendants of a few hundred early immigrants from Europe who have intermarried for generations. “Amish fiction,” Weaver-Zercher writes, “absent post-9/11 conversations about race, ethnicity, and religious difference, may reveal a largely white readership anxious about race, nervous about their movement away from iconic, normative status, and eager to escape to a whitewashed world.” The books transform the Amish into “quintessential Americans,” scrubbed of sexual, racial, and religious diversity, and imbued with the holy characteristics of hard work, faithfulness to community, and adherence to God and His free market.

Can we assume that the popularity of Amish fiction—with its sanitized social relations and dire warnings against sexual and religious impurity—means that these millions of readers wish to remake the nation in their characters’ idealized (i.e., covertly evangelical) Amish image? That answer is complicated. My weakness for Louis L’Amour’s vast corpus of shoot-’em-up Westerns hasn’t prompted me to light out for the frontier and take up with a gold prospector. Likewise, evangelicals aren’t lining up to join Amish communities. Rather, genre fiction enters our reading lives as something other than a blueprint. Janice Radway, in her pathbreaking study of romance novels, Reading the Romance, writes that

when specific psychological needs, which [readers] are not able to fully identify themselves, are inadequately addressed or left unfulfilled by a woman’s daily rounds of activities and social contacts, she will turn to a romance and imagine what it feels like to have her needs met as are those of her alter ego, the heroine.

So how does it feel to be an Amish romance heroine? Well, for one thing, it’s fulfilling: nearly all these protagonists, after their appointed rounds of setbacks and doubts, find true love in the end. As in romance novels, these young women mistake their love’s distance for disinterest, only to discover that—miraculously—he is godly, gentle, alive, faithful, attentive . . . and ready to commit. For someone negotiating the challenges of real-world marriage and family in a society with shifting and switchbacking social values, that’s a comforting message.

He is godly, gentle, alive, faithful, attentive . . . and ready to commit.

Weaver-Zercher also cautions us against making sweeping assumptions about how readers read. In her interviews with readers, Weaver-Zercher found that women often see Amish fiction as a way to make community by swapping the books and discussing their lessons of patience and acceptance. In broad terms, then, the books reinforce their already confirmed “faith narrative” that God is in control and knows what He’s doing. Weaver-Zercher quotes Lynn Neal, another scholar of inspiration fiction, who explains that the formulaic flatness of the religious melodrama is actually a kind of spiritual mimesis: “In this [evangelical Christian] religion-aesthetic world, mediocrity [the mean between two extremes], predictability, utility, and sentimentality reign. What many would call creative flaws are labeled by evangelicals as artistic achievement and theological truth.” Horatio Alger himself couldn’t have put it any better.

God’s Perfect Self-Promoter

Didactic morality may dictate the plot contrivances of the bonnet book, which serves as a sort of pluperfect variation on the evangelical themes of devotional purity, sacrifice, and individual salvation. But the cloistered and moralistic character of the content is at odds with the genre’s runaway market success. Being pure and long-suffering may stand you in good stead as a bonnet-book heroine—but it does nothing for you as a writer-cum-marketer of Amish-themed fiction.

For authors wrestling with the publishing world today, the bonnet-book genre comes bearing inspirational messages of a different sort—and not all of them are encouraging. Last fall, two days after I submitted the manuscript for my first book, my agent gave me a copy of Rob Eager’s Sell Your Book like Wildfire:The Writer’s Guide to Marketing and Publicity. One of Eager’s clients, and a primary case study in the book, is Wanda Brunstetter. The aptly named Eager unabashedly explains how to “make your mark with an author brand” and even urges his audience of fledgling authors “to build book-marketing tools into your manuscript.” But in the current publishing environment—when a developed “platform” is a prerequisite for a book contract and authors are expected to be not only good writers but also good marketers—the promotional tools advanced by the bonnet books can be disconcerting. While Amish life may be retiring and contemplative, the rush to stoke demand for Amish-themed fiction is anything but.

Many of the bestselling authors in the genre write two books a year. Their glorification of a simple, modest life hardly deters them from employing every possible self-promoting technology to sell their books—in fact, their books pointedly eschew the very modes of capitalist enterprise that propel their book sales. Brunstetter, Lewis, and Shepard Gray post daily recipes, pictures of covered bridges, inspirational quotes, and “Girlfriend Getaway” announcements on their Facebook pages. Authors answer questions from readers and “reviewers” on Goodreads and maintain frequently used email lists. “Im so happy to have you as a member of my community,” read my personalized welcome message from Brunstetter. Shepard Gray has an annually revolving “street team” called the Buggy Bunch—fans who receive advance copies of her books in exchange for promoting them on social media and to libraries and for writing reviews online. The books seldom come as stand-alone titles, but in series of three, four, or six, each costing as little as four dollars. Fifty percent of Amish fiction sales are logged at Walmart.

There’s another Rob Eager lesson that publishers and authors like Wanda Brunstetter have taken to heart: become an expert. The first way to prove your expertise as a bonnet book author is to find some Anabaptists in your family tree. Beverly Lewis was born in Lancaster County (she now lives in Colorado), and her grandmother left the Old Order Mennonites as a young woman. Wanda Brunstetter’s husband was raised Mennonite (they now live in Washington State).

The second way is to make Amish friends and talk about them (or cowrite a book with them). The third way is to hawk your knowledge. “One Amish-country newspaper claimed Beverly’s work to be ‘a primer on Lancaster County folklore’ and offers ‘an insider’s view of Amish life,’” reads Lewis’s website. Brunstetter’s site hosts a glossary page for Pennsylvania Dutch words. Most Amish fiction authors claim to run their manuscripts by someone in the Amish community for accuracy.

Still, the book that catapulted the genre into mass renown, Lewis’s The Shunning, is rife with errors. And even I, who can claim only a cousinly relation to Amish observance, have detected scores of errors in other Amish-themed novels. From inaccurate depictions of wedding ceremonies to incorrect use of Pennsylvania Dutch, from inauthentic dress on cover models to mischaracterization of non-family interaction, bonnet books seem singularly careless with key spiritual and historical details for a genre that’s staked its reputation largely on its unvarnished authenticity.

Viewed from this vantage, the bonnet book represents an opportunistic appropriation of a heretofore sheltered subculture on a staggering scale. Evangelical authors have repurposed an Amish experience that they know only at second hand for a readership made up mostly of evangelical women.

Daniel Silliman, a religion researcher, wrote on his blog in 2011 that perhaps tourists, such as those who visit Lancaster County, aren’t necessarily fooled by the version of authentic culture that is presented to them. “Another way to read the consumption of packaged realness,” he wrote, “is that the contradictions are held in such a way as to be useful. The cliches of the tour or the kitsch one buys could work as a reminder of an ideal, a restraining critique, a tool to empower one to imagine life different than it is. And consistency be damned.”

Such contradictions worm their way into the dramatic heart of bonnet books, creating their own theater of authenticity. “I’ve always been fascinated with the Amish culture, and a doll like that would look cute on my bed,” Susan tells her sister during a visit to the Amish market in Brunstetter’s A Lancaster County Saga. It’s a doll without a face, one of the many handcrafts sold by Amish who keep stands in tourist-clogged markets across America; it doubles as a sly nod to the camera-shy folk who make them. The doll also serves, oddly enough, to echo the caricature of the bonneted women, their heads demurely turned away from view, who appear on Amish fiction book covers.

But in the windup of the lumbering plot of A Lancaster County Saga, the featureless doll also draws a far more urgent symbolic duty: it’s the token of Amishness that summons amnesiac John Doe back to his Amish heritage—and his one true love. “That’s what I’ve been seeing in these dreams I keep having,” he says when Susan pulls the doll from a box. “At first I thought it was faceless people, but I think it’s a doll like this one. Someone I know had a doll like this.” Surely not for the last time in the American marketplace of ideas, a faceless tchotchke has ushered a grateful nation back onto the path to personal redemption and the recovery of its true spiritual calling.