The Amish "Twilight"

Women are buying romances set among the old-fashioned religious community by the millions. But why?

Published September 9, 2009 6:10PM (EDT)

Move over, vampires. You may be the biggest game in the strange and fascinating town we call "genre romance," but you're not alone. And it's time to meet your new neighbors. They're... Amish.

That's right: As Alexandra Alter reports in a Wall Street Journal cover story, Amish romance novels -- better known to fans as "bonnet books" -- are all the rage. One author, Beverly Lewis, has sold over 13.5 million copies of her books, which are set in the Pennsylvania Amish community. And publisher Thomas Nelson plans to bring out no fewer than 11 Amish romances by the end of next year. Jane Love, a Barnes & Noble book buyer, told Alter that bonnet books now account for 15 of the company's top 100 religious fiction titles. "It's almost like you put a person with a bonnet or an Amish field in the background and it automatically starts to sell well," she said, referring to the books' standard, nearly identical, covers.

While a number of Amish women read bonnet books (and many don't, because they object to outside authors' portrayal of their community or distrust fiction as "distracting and deceitful"), it doesn't seem to be their patronage that is driving the genre's growing success. According to Alter, "Publishers attribute the books' popularity to their pastoral settings and forbidden love scenarios à la Romeo and Juliet," which usually involve an Amish woman falling for an outsider.

But there has to be something more to the trend, doesn't there? The combination Alter describes is, after all, at least as old as "Wuthering Heights." And it isn't like the appeal of exotic locales and impossible loves is lost on Harlequin, either.

Over at Washington City Paper's The Sexist blog, Amanda Hess seizes on bonnet books' "sexually conservative" element and goes on the express her confusion at their popularity outside the Amish community:

I can understand why an Amish woman might be interested to read about a woman, like her, who catches  a couple of hot smooching sessions with an exotic hunk one fateful summer. Why 250 non-Amish people recently gathered in Pennsylvania Amish country to "[snap] Ms. Woodsmall's photo with cellphone cameras," however, escapes me. I suppose I just don’t get hot reading a romanticized account of a community where women’s rights don’t exist.

Unfortunately, I think I get it.  Part of the appeal of vampire romances is the heroine's utter powerlessness against her nonetheless tender lover. They satisfy that terribly retrograde, terminally un-PC (but also, in this world of stress and responsibility, entirely understandable) fantasy of wholehearted trust and total surrender. "The chief point of this story is that the couple aren't equals," Laura Miller wrote in her review of the "Twilight" series, also notable for its own conservative sexual mores. "Vampires have long served to remind us of the parts of our own psyches that seduce us, sapping our will and autonomy, dragging us back into the past. And they walk among us to this day." As, of course, do the purposefully retro Amish -- even if, in their community, women's subjugation is more social than physical.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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