Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels.
In flipping through a Christian mail-order gift catalog this past summer I was startled to find, among the cotton tunics, costume jewelry, and prayerful plaques, a sizeable number of romance novels featuring Amish heroines. One or two forays into the fascinating cultural landscape of the Amish would have been unsurprising, but book covers graced by demure young women in white "prayer kapps" popped up on page after page. Intrigued into some impromptu statistical analysis, I found that nearly half of the romance novels in the catalog, fifteen out of thirty-three, were Amish-inspired. Two of the twelve cookbooks, moreover, featured Amish and Mennonite cuisine. Here was new territory for the scholar of popular culture, and I lay aside the catalog with a desire to explore its meaning. Fortunately, editor and writer Valerie Weaver-Zercher has paved the way with Thrill of the Chaste, the first scholarly monograph to analyze what she terms "the marriage of inspirational fiction and the Amish" and its offspring, the "Amish romance novel" (xii).
Weaver-Zercher's engaging study builds on two strains of scholarship: analyses of contemporary evangelical fiction by scholars of religion and popular literature such as Lynn S. Neal, Anita Gandolfo, and Pamela Regis, and cultural studies of the Amish, a field that sociologist John A. Hostetler pioneered in the mid-twentieth century. Weaver-Zercher's analysis incorporates the work of several of Hostetler's academic descendents, including linguistic anthropologist Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, sociologist Donald B. Kraybill (series editor), and historian David L. Weaver-Zercher, the author's husband. Her critical method combines cultural criticism with transactional reading theory.
Weaver-Zercher, however, also writes from her own experience. She readily acknowledges her enjoyment of Amish romances and is equally transparent about her religious affiliation (she and her husband belong to the Mennonite Church). In composing her study, Weaver-Zercher elected to blend her "social location" into her analysis and to make her engagement with her subject matter a story in itself. In this she succeeds very well, for the resulting work of "narrative scholarship" has a liveliness that, without sacrificing scholarly rigor, makes it accessible to interested lay readers (xiii). Despite the "allure" that Amish romance holds for her, Weaver-Zercher maintains a critical distance from her subject.
Thrill of the Chaste is divided into ten chapters and roughly three parts. In chapters 1-3, Weaver-Zercher sets the stage by examining the sudden rise of the Amish romance novel to popularity. Chapters 4-7 examine various social and cultural functions the genre plays in the lives of both producers and readers, while chapters 8-9 assess the reactions of the Amish themselves. Chapter 10, which serves as the conclusion, speculates on the future of the genre.
The Amish romance novel, as Weaver-Zercher presents it in chapter 1, is less than two decades old. The trend began with the publication of Beverly Lewis' The Shunning in 1997, but grew exponentially beginning in 2008. The author provides a chart showing the number of titles published roughly doubling every year between 2008 and 2012, while noting that the three most popular writers, Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall, have sold a combined total of twenty-four million books (5). While acknowledging that the 2008 recession may have increased public interest in Amish simplicity, Weaver-Zercher attributes the striking popularity of the Amish romance mainly to its capacity to provide an antidote to two aspects of contemporary life that many readers find oppressive, namely, hypermodernity (excessive speed and intensity) and hypersexualization. Noting that most readers of Amish fiction are evangelical women, she identifies the Amish heroine as one manifestation of the "purity culture" that evangelicals have created in reaction to the spread of pornography into mainstream culture (7-14).
Another reason for the popularity of the Amish novels, Weaver-Zercher suggests, is simply that they are fun to read. While writing her book, however, she reflected on her tendency to conceal her beloved novels when reading them in public. She concluded that her surreptitiousness was a self-protective reaction to the disdain of many critics for popular literature, their dismissal of the so-called "bonnet books" as formulaic and maudlin. Weaver-Zercher argues that such contempt arises from an excessively narrow view of literature and a desire on the part of many academics to imitate the hard sciences in their literary analyses. She suggests that it may also reflect "a historically male academy's denigration of women's reading habits." In this connection, she provides an amusing anecdote from a marketing manager at a firm specializing in Amish fiction. He confided to her that many men "confess" to reading the books their wives buy (21-22).
In chapter 2, Weaver-Zercher analyzes the "DNA" of the Amish romance novel. She identifies as its ancestor the contemporary Christian romance novel, in particular, Janette Oke's 1979 prairie romance, Love Comes Softly. As secular romances became increasingly salacious in the 1980s, evangelical Christians turned to their own distinctive fiction in increasing numbers, and much of this writing had a bucolic setting. In Chapter 3, Weaver-Zercher explores the Amish novel as an aspect of both evangelical and Anabaptist (Amish and Mennonite) discourse. As the former, the genre appeals to evangelicals' sense of being separate from the larger culture and their belief that non-evangelicals dislike them. With respect to the latter, Weaver-Zercher turns up very little in the Amish community, which has a history of separatism and has made no concerted attempt to extend its discourse to outsiders. Only one author of Amish romances, Linda Byler, is actually Amish. Mennonites, however, are more accepting of some modern technologies and often play a mediating role between evangelicals and Amish in Amish romances.
Weaver-Zercher devotes her next four chapters to studying the Amish romance novel from a variety of perspectives that she terms "metaphors." Chapter 4 presents the Amish novel as a "commodity," and the author notes with irony that Amish fiction itself has become a vehicle for hypermodernity. Websites that purport to provide only information on Amish life also serve to promote sales of Amish fiction, and the novels are currently being marketed as e-books. In chapter 5, Weaver-Zercher argues that Amish novels serve as "icons" in the lives of their readers, that is, they perform both a didactic and a devotional purpose. The Amish protagonists serve as role models, like Orthodox saints, and the storyline functions as a kind of Protestant catechesis. In chapter 6, returning to her critique of hypermodernity and hypersexuality, the author presents the Amish novel as a vehicle for "imaginative transport" to a more serene world, avoiding the pejorative term "escape." In her interviews with devotees of the genre, Weaver-Zercher found that readers experienced a sense of companionship with the novels protagonist, that they enjoyed the suspense of the story, and that they found vicarious relief in the happy endings that also affirmed their Christian faith in the workings of Providence. In chapter 7, titled "Virgin-Mothers," Weaver-Zercher argues that Amish novels attract female evangelical readers because they are versatile enough to appeal to both conservative and progressive ideas of womanhood. The novels liberate through their devotion to chastity and through their lack of concern for physical beauty. In addition, readers of Amish fiction are often attracted to the idea of complementarian marriage. In response to the critical view that such ideals are antifeminist, Weaver-Zercher argues that Amish novels are liberating in that they privilege the experience of women.
In chapters 8 and 9, Weaver-Zercher explores the response of the Amish themselves to Amish fiction. She has been surprised to learn from a librarian that many Amish, the young especially, are avid readers of fiction about themselves written by non-Amish. Other Amish reject the genre primarily on the basis of the traditional Protestant belief that fiction, because untrue, is spiritually unhealthy. Still others object to the novels' simplicity and complain that their depiction of Amish customs is "inaccurate." Weaver-Zercher explores some of these inaccuracies, which range from minor (characters are given Amish names that are not used in the particular communities in which the novelist has placed them) to plot-shattering (Amish romance novelists greatly exaggerate the frequency and severity of the practice of "shunning"). Without taking a position, Weaver-Zercher discusses the question of whether Amish fiction respectfully "appreciates" the Amish or callously "appropriates" them.
In her concluding chapter, observing that the appetite for Amish fiction is hardly blunted today, Weaver-Zercher explores possible future directions in which the genre may move, including a more critical treatment of the Amish, expansion of the genre to other pietistic denominations, increasing competition from secular publishers, and a shift toward Amish non-fiction such as memoirs. She also considers the ironic possibility that the Amish themselves may shift away from their traditional culture, which does not place a strong emphasis on romance, as they continue to read Amish romance novels.
In considering the larger implications of her study, Weaver-Zercher notes that it is highly unusual for members of one culture to produce such a large body of work about members of another. Despite her personal love for the genre, she remains uneasy about the possibility that evangelicals will injure the Amish in the process of "drawing spiritual sustenance" from them (246). She ends, however, on a note of affirmation. She reflects on the attraction of Amish novels for diverse readers and concludes that it represents, not juvenile escapism, but an intelligent hope that the "drought of hypermodernity" may come to an end.
Weaver-Zercher has accomplished her purpose in presenting a convincing analysis of the "allure" of Amish fiction, and her sympathetic analysis points toward a larger understanding of Amish fiction as indicative of a widespread spiritual yearning among modern Americans. In this her argument reflects the thinking of Hostetler, who saw a "moral purpose" in the Amish example of an alternative to modern anomie. This moral understanding makes Thrill of the Chaste valuable reading for scholars of religion and popular culture as well as literature, and indeed for any reader suffering thirst in the climate of "hypermodernity."
In developing a larger interpretation of her research, Weaver-Zercher would benefit from placing her analysis in a wider historical and scholarly context. Debates over the social value of romance novels were common in the years of the Early Republic and were complicated at that time as well by the association of the Active with the feminine. The view that women's fiction could not only reflect reality but shape it gained currency over time. In studying this period, literary scholars such as Jane Tompkins, Philip Fisher, and Nina Baym have argued for the intellectual seriousness of the popular novel and developed the idea of popular fiction as a cultural work designed to effect social change. It is intriguing to speculate on the possibility that Amish fiction, by introducing readers to a counterculture of simplicity and purity, could likewise serve as a vehicle, not merely for transport, but for transformation.
Sara S. Frear
Houston Baptist University
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|Author:||Frear, Sara S.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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