Amish fiction: Put a bonnet on it

Forget "50 Shades of Grey" -- Amish fiction is hot, and a woman in a headcover means an instant bestseller

Published September 1, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

      (<a href=''>Jorge Moro</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Jorge Moro via Shutterstock/Salon)

With mommy porn bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey whipping up a sadomasochistic storm in the female book market this summer, it might seem safe to assume that old-fashioned romance novels, in which the protagonists prefer hastily confessed feelings and innocent first kisses to heavy petting and handcuffs, would begin to disappear from the shelves. After all, now that someone is finally writing erotica for the estrogen set, who needs tender love stories?

The Amish, that’s who. Or to be more accurate, women, principally Christian, who love to read about the Amish. Amish romance novels are big business. Most feature a pretty girl in a bonnet on the cover. There are quilting bees and work frolics, pie bakes, and buggy rides into the sunset. Almost all of them follow a particular young woman in her search for the fulfillment of romantic and family love.

Not that the course of true love ever did run smooth, even in Lancaster County, Pa., or Shipshewana, Ind. As is the case with any romance novel bound for the bestseller list, there are innumerable obstacles on the way to the altar for the Hannahs and Rachels and Roses and Betsys of the “plain” world. (“Plain” being Amish or, in some cases, old-order Mennonite; “fancy” is reserved for the modern lifestyle of decorative clothes, cars and electricity.)

Sometimes the obstacle is another bonneted girl. Sometimes, as is the case with the book that started it all – Beverly Lewis’ novel The Shunning – it’s the call of the "English" world. More often than not, it takes about four books to get everything resolved. If you like Leah’s Choice by Marta Perry, why not pick up Book 2 in her Pleasant Valley series, Rachel’s Garden? (Which, incidentally, was my introduction to Amish romance novels. My boyfriend bought it for me on a lark while waiting in line at Walgreen’s.) Anyone who falls in love with Pleasant Valley will be happy to know there are still two more books in the series: Anna’s Return and Sarah’s Gift.

Such sequels obviously fill the coffers of Christian publishing houses like Bethany House, Harvest House and Livingston Hall. The phenomenon that is Amish fiction, itself a subset of a larger genre of romances christened “bonnet books” by editors and marketers, is in some ways representative of a publishing industry bent on the bottom line. Bonnet books by top authors rarely sell less than 100,000 copies and several Amish fiction writers produce more than one book a year.

According to Steve Oates, vice president of marketing for Bethany House, bonnet books are a sure thing and have been ever since Beverly Lewis single-handedly gave birth to the genre in the late '90s.

“If you put a head covering on the woman on the front, you’re going to sell a lot more copies,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “It’s that simple. Even if the book isn’t about the Amish – maybe it’s about a Mennonite girl or even a young woman living in John Bunyan-era Europe – if you put some sort of bonnet or hat on her, it’s almost like magic. We have an author, Ann Gabhart, who writes for our sister division, Revell. She made the switch over to bonnet books and doubled her sales.”

Regardless of when and where the stories are set – northeastern Indiana, northern Ohio, central Iowa or, as is most often the case, in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country – they do sell, and even though sales of Amish fiction, like that of literary and popular fiction, have slowed somewhat over the past couple of years, these novels are still in high demand, particularly among Christian women in rural communities where the closest Wal-Mart is sure to shelve the latest Beverly Lewis or Mindy Starns Clark. (Incidentally, Wal-Mart accounts for 50 percent of the sales of Amish fiction’s top authors.)

“Everyone gathers around the table for the evening meal,” Oates said. “Life is first and foremost family-oriented, and the environment is one in which it’s perfectly natural to talk about God, about praying. Children are naturally obedient. They’re not running off to hang out with their friends. Of course, that’s not the way it really is in the Amish community – they have their own problems – but in these books everyone belongs to a close, tight-knit community, which is very appealing to women.

“The books are aspirational,” he added. “It’s the ‘I wish my family were like this’ kind of thing.”

They’re also a natural fit for marketing in the social media age. Sites like and innumerable Facebook pages help devoted readers of Amish fiction get their “plain” fix. Loyal fans of Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, Jerry Eicher and others can visit such sites for book excerpts, author interviews and blog posts, potato salad recipes, photographs, guides to Amish ways of life, and even movielike trailers for upcoming books.

In the trailer for Murray Pura’s The Wings of Morning, for instance, we’re told that Jude Whetstone and Lindayya Kurtz are “young, Amish, and deeply in love.” There’s a catch, of course. Jude falls hard for the newly invented flying machine and, to complicate matters further, it’s 1917 and World War I is raging in Europe. Amish communities are held in contempt by their "English" neighbors because they speak German and refuse to fight. When Jude and his brothers are rounded up and taken to a military base, Jude must make a decision – to fly or not to fly? To be shunned and lose Lindayya or to risk a harsh crackdown by the U.S. military?

You’ll have to read the bonnet book to find out.

Heavy is the head

If it seems strange to visit a website to read Amish fiction, consider that you can also get several Amish romance titles for your Kindle, including Sarah Price’s Fields of Corn, Teresa Ann Phillip’s Boppli in a Basket, and my personal favorite, Lisa Greer’s thriller, Blood on Her Bonnet. But it’s not really so strange after all. For the most part, the Amish do not read bonnet books. In fact, Jerry Eicher, a former member of an Ontario-based Amish community and one of the leading writers of Amish romances (as well as one of the few males working in the genre) said that, as far as he knows, Amish people pretty much despise the novels.

“From what I’m finding, Amish people are pretty much all up in arms about this Amish fiction stuff,” he said. “They really just want to be left alone. That’s the strongest reason, I think. They don’t want people coming in and disturbing things.”

Eicher is the author of five Amish romance series, including the Rebecca books (Rebecca’s Promise, Rebecca’s Return, Rebecca’s Choice). He left his Amish community as a young man after the bishop discovered that he’d taken to reading Christian writers C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. Eicher wasn’t willing to give up his reading habits and, knowing that by the rules of his particular sect’s “Ordnung” – each Amish community sets its own bylaws, often shaped by the relative leniency or harshness of the serving bishop – he wouldn’t be shunned by his family for joining the Mennonite faith, he and his wife, Tina, did just that.

Later, Eicher moved to Virginia and started a construction business, but he always wrote on the side. As a boy he’d won a writing contest sponsored by the Amish magazine A Young Companion and, while his winning entry had been about his adolescent spiritual awakening, he was familiar with the kind of love stories that typically ran in that publication. Like the Amish romance novels you’ll find at Christian bookstores, as well as Barnes and Noble, Walgreen’s, and Wal-Mart, they usually involved a young Amish woman’s search for love and a young Amish man’s decision, following rumspringa (literally “the running around years” in which “plain” youth are allowed to experiment with English life so as to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to be baptized in the Amish church), to settle down, marry said woman, and start a family.

As a young man himself, Eicher found such romances to be both lightweight and heavy-handed and he never gave writing bonnet books a second thought until his first novel, the self-published and fictionalized autobiography, A Time to Live, caught the eye of an Amish fiction editor.

“The editor told me he needed Amish love stories. He kept pestering and pestering me, but I was worried. I didn’t know if I could write from a woman’s perspective, and that was something he was adamant about. The story had to be about a woman, they had to put a woman in a bonnet on the cover, and there had to be a love story at the heart of it.”

Eventually Eicher, whose construction business was suffering in the wake of the recession, wrote his Sarah series: Sarah and Sarah’s Son. The books sold 30,000 copies and earned him a contract with Harvest House, which then put out his Rebecca series. Since then, Eicher has sold more than 100,000 romances, but it wasn’t until very recently that he started feeling comfortable with his new job. Some anxiety was due to his gender. The rest, however, came from the outside in the form of rabid Beverly Lewis fans who weren’t shy about taking to Amazon and other online forums to point out what they saw as inaccuracies in Eicher’s work.

“The Beverly Lewis people were furious with me,” he said. “I had to go through two series to get out of that. I think by the Hannah series the negative comments had mostly tapered off, but they were really angry at first. They basically said, ‘This guy’s not authentic. He’s a quack. He’s a fake. He has no idea what he’s talking about.’”

Lewis, the veritable godmother of Amish fiction, is not Amish herself, but her grandmother at one time belonged to an old-order Mennonite sect, and Lewis herself grew up in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, the daughter of an Assemblies of God minister. Her father had a great deal of contact with the Amish and, as a girl, she often had dinner at their homes. As research for The Shunning, she and her husband and daughters spent two summers with an Amish family. Unlike Eicher, Lewis claims that many of her Amish friends do indeed read her books, and even sneak into back rooms with laptops to communicate with her via Facebook and email.

“Sometimes they’ll get on Facebook with me for the live chats,” she said. “It’s a hoot. I figure, what the bishops don’t know won’t hurt them.”

Because Amish communities determine their own rules, lifestyles can vary wildly from one sect to another. Perhaps that’s why Lewis fans often chafe at Eicher’s books. Lewis focuses solely on Lancaster County, while Eicher likes to profile a different settlement for each series. The habits and laws of an Amish sect in Holmes County, Ohio, might bear little resemblance to those of Kolona, Iowa, which in turn might have very little in common with one located in DeKalb County, Ind. (On a recent trip home to Indiana I drove through DeKalb and spotted a buggy sporting ground effects and minivan bucket seats. Rock music blared from a boombox in the back. The next buggy I saw was more traditional – an unadorned, sealed black box with a reflective orange triangle on the fender.)

Such seeming inconsistencies can lead to confusion on the part of the English reader. How is it that some can get away with having cellphones while others are punished for wearing hats with too narrow a brim?

Lewis’ books, while meticulously researched, do not often deal with such realities, at least when those realities would cast the Amish in a less-than-exalted light. In fact, her Amish friends asked that in her writing Lewis avoid exposing some of the very real problems Amish communities face when trying to keep the modern world at bay. For that view of things, you can always consult documentaries like “Devil’s Playground” and “Trouble in Paradise” in which Amish young people are depicted as hard-drinking, hard-drugging partyers more interested in meth than in settling down quickly with the bonneted girl or bowl-cut boy of their dreams.

“My friends have told me, ‘Look, we’re not perfect. You don’t have to write like we’re perfect, but please also don’t tell too much about how wild our young people get. Don’t write about the wild beer parties, the premarital sex, that kind of stuff,’” Lewis said.

So instead, she wrote The Shunning. Loosely based on Lewis’ maternal grandmother’s heart-wrenching ex-communication from her Mennonite community, the romance was Lewis’ first novel for adults. It tells the story of Katie Lapp, a beautiful, restless young Amish woman who, unlike her brothers and friends, can’t seem to tamp down her love of pretty clothes and English music. It isn’t until she discovers that she was not actually born Amish but rather adopted by the Lapp family from a poor little rich English girl that Katie begins to understand why she longs to trade her plain life for something fancier.

Prior to The Shunning’s publication in 1997, Lewis had written fiction only for children and young adults, her most popular being What Is God Like? and its companion, What Is Heaven Like?, both distributed by Bethany House. She’d also put out a number of books in the popular Christian series The Cul-de-sac Kids.

Steve Oates said that while the people at Bethany House believed in Lewis and had benefited from her proven ability to pump out popular fiction (she writes two books a year and has more than 14 million copies in print), he and the rest of the staff were a little anxious when she pitched them an idea for a novel targeted at adults.

“But we thought it was a good, sweet story and that there was potential for it to sell maybe 25,000 in the first year,” he said.

They were way off. The Shunning sold more than 125,000 copies in its first year and has since been made into both a stage musical and a Hallmark Movie Channel feature film with Michael Landon Jr. as its director. It also launched a new genre, and there are at least 39 women and men (Eicher now has two or three compatriots) now regularly writing Amish fiction.

There might be a larger playing field, but Lewis is still the queen of the bonnet book. Her popularity both gratifies and embarrasses her, particularly when she hears stories like Eicher’s.

“Sometimes I read a post on Facebook and it will say something like, ‘Of all the Amish fiction writers, I like you the best’ or ‘You’re the only one I’ll read.’ A lot of bookstore owners tell me the same thing. Customers come in and all they want is the newest Beverly Lewis. They say don’t care about the other 38 writers in the genre. I don’t know how to take that. I believe my readers are very loyal and, my goodness, my heart, I appreciate that, but I think they should read whatever they want to, whatever’s intriguing to them.”

Things that make you go ‘jah’

The Amish fiction market is not limited to books for adults. Young adult writers are also slowly getting into the game. Case in point, Melody Carlson’s Doubletake, which is Freaky Friday or The Parent Trap meets Pennsylvania Dutch country and tells the story of one fateful spring break when Anna Fisher, discontented Amish girl, changes places with Madison Van Buren, angst-ridden gossip girl, with heartwarming results. Both girls learn valuable life lessons, and Madison even finds God, thanks in part to the glorious canopy of stars over Anna’s aunt’s backyard. Madison also discovers that she very much enjoys looking at the Fabio-like form of neighbor boy Malachi Stoltzfus: “[She] gaped at his perfect abs and ripped muscles as he shoved the bale into place. His torso was tan and glistening in the sun, and with his shaggy blond hair, chiseled profile, perfect nose, full lips … seriously, this guy could model for the front of a romance novel.”

If bonnet books sound a little like bodice busters without the sex, that’s because they are. There’s much talk of feelings and emotions, a great deal of agonizing over love, and a healthy dose of “will they or won’t they,” only in the case of Amish fiction, the question involves marriage and joining the church instead of throbbing purple manhoods. The novels often begin with an Amish language glossary, and all include italicized German words like “jah” (yes), “ach,” (oh) and “kinder” (kids). And no matter what the book’s basic story line, you’re guaranteed to encounter some familiar names. Everyone’s either a Glick, a Zook, a Lapp, or a Stoltzfus. Gad-zooks, Batman!

Oates admits that Amish fiction, while obviously incredibly popular, is a tricky genre because it’s one in which the writers (with the exception of Eicher) are not necessarily writing what they know rather than what they've learned.

“If you think about it, it is a bit problematic,” he said. “You’re basically writing a Christian book about people of another faith.”

At first, even Lewis had misgivings. Even though she’d grown up alongside many Amish children and her mother’s side of the family is still very much a part of plain life, she wasn’t sure she could write about a community that was both so oddly exotic and deliberately isolated. The only way she overcomes her concerns is through research in the form of reading and regular visits to the specific community she’s writing about.

“I love the research. That’s really my favorite part. I find the different Ordnungs fascinating, and I work hard to double- and triple-check every fact. Some of my readers tell me my books are almost more like nonfiction than fiction, and I find that very flattering.”

Lewis believes it’s research and a deep and abiding fascination with, and respect for, the Amish way of life that distinguishes her novels from others that might have been written with more a cynical end in mind: that is, a fat paycheck. Oates agrees. Not necessarily a fan of the bonnet book himself – he’s often asked Lewis to throw in an explosion or two – he said that the Amish fiction authors who write from the heart are amply rewarded in fan loyalty. And, if those fans have any say in the matter, writers like Lewis might even see some returns in the hereafter.

“We hear about people going to church and praying not only for their favorite writers but for the characters in these novels,” Oates said. “As stupid as that may sound to some, bonnet book readers get really emotionally connected to the characters and their lives. That means the authors are really doing their job.”

By Deborah Kennedy

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