Sunday, July 03, 2011

Escaping into Amish and Mennonite Romance

In the past we've discussed values in romance and escapism. Values are very obviously present in inspirational (religious) romances and there can be an escapist aspect to them too:
When the hustle and bustle of life in the twenty-first century starts to overwhelm them, many readers nowadays are finding escape in novels that deal with a simpler life. A life without cell phones and iPods. A community without TVs and cars. A place where gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages are still ways of life. But it’s not historical fiction they’re reading. The stories are set in the present day but focus on the Amish communities that dot states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. (Rodmell)
Amish and Mennonite romances attracted quite a lot of media and academic attention last year. There was an article about them in Bloomberg Businessweek in July 2010:
The most popular microtrends of the moment are Amish- and Mennonite-themed romances, which covered the best-seller lists last fall like a giant head scarf. What was considered a holiday season fad has persisted—and even narrowed. "I have noticed a new trend within the Mennonite genre toward Amana romances," says author Cindy Woodsmall, whose books have appeared on The New York Times' mass-market fiction best-seller list, referring to an ultraconservative strain of Amish. (Morgan)
Then in August they were the subject of an article in USA Today, in which Deirdre Donahue quoted Teach Me Tonight's Pamela Regis:
With Amish inspirationals, which are shelved under "religious fiction" in bookstores like Barnes & Noble, "readers get to peer inside the Amish community, and it is not like our own community," says McDaniel College English professor Pamela Regis, author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel. "Simplicity is a hallmark of that community, and simplicity is powerful." [...] Professor Regis points out that since the 19th century, American women have devoured sentimental novels celebrating faith and family, hearth and home. But unlike, say, Little House on the Prairie, fans don't need to time- travel to see the Amish. They only need visit tourist-friendly Lancaster, Pa., to witness the Amish in action, which adds to the genre's allure.
Analysis of this romance sub-genre also made its way into Volume 2.4 of the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing (July 2010). The volume includes two articles on the sub-genre and a bibliography of "Mennonite and Amish Serial Fiction," which lists a variety of series, including novels which
fall within the category irreverently called “chick lit” by critics, or, in this case, “bonnet lit,” alluding to the severe head coverings worn by most of the young Mennonite and Amish heroines of these romances, which are usually set in a pastoral countryside. (Beck)
Beth Graybill writes that
Three bonnet-romance writers – Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter and Cindy Woodsmall – are New York Times best-selling authors. Other writers in this genre routinely make the best-selling lists of Christian booksellers. For example, 10 of the top 25 Christian fiction books for 2009 are Amish romances, according to, one of three major Christian book retailers.
Michelle Thurlow observes that there are older precursors of the contemporary wave of "bonnet romances," including "The Masquerading of Margaret (1908) by social progressive Cora Gottschalk Welty," "Anna Balmer Myers' Amanda (1921), Joseph Yoder's Rosanna of the Amish (1940), and 'Carolyn Keene's' Nancy Drew mystery The Witch Tree Symbol (ghostwritten by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, 1955)." Her article, however, focuses on just one recent series, by Beverly Lewis, whose books "have finally propelled the Amish novel into a genre of its own."

Issues of faith are, of course, extremely important in this sub-genre, as in all inspirational romances, so it seems important to note that Lewis's
books have been banned in some ordnungs, or church rules, in Ohio and Pennsylvania due to theological differences. Though Lewis quietly sidesteps interrogating some of the more controversial aspects of Amish culture (e.g., division of labor between men and women, prohibition of higher education), she is unabashedly evangelical in her presentation of the Gospel in her works. As the daughter of an Assemblies of God pastor and an active member of that church, Lewis allows her characters to attend Bible studies, pray charismatic prayers, and boldly claim salvation in Jesus Christ. Since Old Order Amish soteriology holds that it is prideful for the communion of earthly saints to claim salvation (as opposed to hoping to be saved), one can imagine that some of the more skeptical bishops of das alt Gebrauch (the old way) would see these novels as stalking horses for evangelism. (Thurlow)
Similarly, Graybill suggests that while "many" of the authors of "bonnet" romances "do try, in fact, to get their facts right in relation to the Amish characters they are depicting" nonetheless
all Amish romance authors write out of, and to, a particular evangelical Christian subculture. This can lead to some odd depictions of Amish faith. Amish protagonists agonize about finding God's will for their lives. In many, Jesus comes to them personally through sign or vision. [...] According to reporter Ann Rodgers, who studied Amish fiction for a 2009 story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the biggest criticism noted by her sources was that characters in these novels think and talk too much like standard evangelicals, whose understanding of God’s will tends to be individualistic rather than communal.

The poster, "Visit Pennsylvania Where pre-revolutionary costumes still survive," which depicts the head and shoulders of "a woman in eighteenth-century costume," was created by Katherine Milhous for the "Pennsylvania Art Project, WPA, [between 1936 and 1940]." I downloaded it from the WPA Posters Collection at the Library of Congress. According to the Library of Congress there are "No known restrictions on publication."


  1. This post strikes me because I was recently in Lancaster and because of a lesson of Northrop Frye. Somewhere in his writing, Frye argued that romances reflect out societal concerns -- that whatever our romances are about is what we are worried about. (Frye is theorising romance to include mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, and love stories.) So whenever I see a "trend," I'm always thinking, what is provoking this, what societal concern is driving this trend? Is it just a nostalgia or sentimentality, or is it something bigger?

    At a recent conference, for instance, I learned (and am summarising superficially here) that vampires are more prominent under a Republican president, and Zombies under a Democratic president. Now surely this isn't a fluke, so now what?

  2. vampires are more prominent under a Republican president, and Zombies under a Democratic president

    I don't know much about US politics, so I'll speculate wildly here. At the conference you went to was there any suggestion that the vampires could correspond to a fear that Republican presidents will enhance inequality so that there's a greater difference between the elite (which are wealthy and long-lived) and the rest of the population and the zombies reflect a fear that Democratic presidents will brainwash the population and destroy individualism?

    So whenever I see a "trend," I'm always thinking, what is provoking this, what societal concern is driving this trend? Is it just a nostalgia or sentimentality, or is it something bigger?

    Again, speculating wildly, but if US evangelical Christians are feeling that they're increasingly surrounded by a secularised culture, could "bonnet romances" serve as reassurance that it's possible to stick steadfastly to Christian values even in the context of a wider society which scorns/rejects them?

  3. Fascinating! My Granny was a romance writer, publishing short romances in religious publications from c. 1930s - 1950s - my oldest sister did some academic work on them and how they relate to her experiences as an irish immigrant. Romance is endless fascinating in the way it reflects cultures and sub-cultures - I can't think of another genre that does this so comprehensively.

    I did a blog post a while ago about understanding my Granny through her romances - we're lucky enough to have the complete set, with the book in which she noted how much she got paid for each and where they were published (publications like the Catholic Fireside and Dowry of Mary). A precursor to Inspirational?

    Here's the post if you're interested:

  4. Thanks for the link.

    On the topic of precursors to inspirationals, I've been following Miriam Burstein's blog, "The Little Professor," and she quite often posts plot synopses of the nineteenth century religious novels she's studying. Some of them have romantic elements, including Lady Mary Pierrepoint, a Victorian anti-Catholic novel, Caleb Asher, a work of "Nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish didactic fiction" and the Catholic The Biblicals (1831).

  5. @ Jonathon and Laura: So whenever I see a "trend," I'm always thinking, what is provoking this, what societal concern is driving this trend? Is it just a nostalgia or sentimentality, or is it something bigger?

    I'd say yes and no. The societal concern--not necessarily a conscious one--is part of a USer's national mythos: Our regeneration myth is that we can return to something simpler, more natural and become, er, noble. It's an underlying premise of most western (and western romances). Frequently, I'd suggest, the Amish fulfill that same state of "simple nature," unencombered by all the money-grubbing modern-world corruption. It's a totally false assumption, but USers much prefer ideological rhetoric rather than cold, hard reality. So, I'd say the trend here has more to do with nostalgia than with religion.

    But I wouldn't get carried away with the nostalgia. USers tend to view the past as "better": life was more peaceful in the 1950s, life was better under Reagan. In both cases, not so.

    We tend to view the Amish almost as a spectacle. When Outsiders seen an Amish carriage traveling down a road, invariably the cry is, "Oh, isn't that cute! Take a picture." Amish are the Other and truly not very well understood by Outsiders. So using their communities and cultures, I think, masks the cultural rifts and adds to the fantasy aspect of romance.

    So I think the bigger trend is that we'd like to escape to a kinder, gentler world, regardless of mythic distortion.

  6. Contemporary-set "bonnet" inspirationals are different from historical inspirationals, but in the context of discussing nostalgia I remembered what Lynn S. Neal, in her book about inspirational romances and their readers, has to say about historical inspirationals:

    While some novels feature contemporary settings, many of the most popular titles set their heroines in the past. In these historical portrayals, the women I interviewed not only found solidarity with heroines and authors but also discovered the sense of God's romancing. This sense emerged as they discerned not only the individual but the historical nature of his providential planning. For those who are struggling to understand their historical role as evangelical women, these novels offer a glimpse into a past controlled by a loving, involved God. (174)


    The historical settings of the novels enable readers to imaginatively visit various locales, to learn about historical events, and to discover their place in history - as women and as evangelicals. The novels depict a past where God and conservative Protestant women (and men) dominate. For my consultants, reading about evangelical heroines who influenced world history affirms their importance and God's providential control. (175)

    So it would seem that for these readers, inspirational historicals aren't just a nostalgia trip; there is clearly a spiritual component and, perhaps also a political one.

    Neal also mentions some of the "bonnet" inspirationals. Here's what she has to say about Beverly Lewis's Lancaster series:

    readers find a combination that works, both religiously and recreationally. Balancing struggle and success, tragedy and triumph, Lewis offers readers a series that explores religious growth and romantic love. Evangelical romances like Lewis's become a ministry through which spiritual change occurs, in part, by establishing a two-fold relationship between reader and heroine: identification and inspiration. It is a relationship predicated on the reader's desire for spiritual sustenance and growth or, at times, her sense of pain and inadequacy. In these women's everyday lives, often the reality of faith fades and the sense of God erodes. However, heroines such as Katie, if successful, help readers recapture the certainty of evangelical faith that prompts them to then gain spiritual encouragement, practice evangelical beliefs, and endure religious struggles. In this way, evangelical romance [...] offers fictional counterparts who face understandable problems and who model solutions. (130-32)

    Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P., 2006.

  7. Ooh, even more evidence of the regeneration myth. Richard Slotkin's western history trilogy is the best study of the US regeneration myth. Of course, for males, it's regeneration through violence. These historical inspirationals may well fulfill the same function for women: as regeneration through spirit and faith or regeneration through romance.

    In any case, the regeneration myth pops up in various forms of pop culture when USers feel that society has become too chaotic.

  8. Thinking about the Western, isn't a large part of the idea of the West also an idea of conquering and domination, or perhaps, that the West has to be tamed so as to allow something to grow? That is, the West has to be won, has to be conquered, and only then can the regeneration myth take place? I apologise if this is hopelessly naive.

  9. Not necessarily. Consider the film, "Dances with Wolves"; after being symbolically killed in the Civil War, the Dunbar character goes West to live with the Sioux and finds new life. Regeneration.

    So, my interpretation about Amish romances is that we view the Amish community as something closer to nature (God), simpler, more in touch with "real" spirituality. As Laura has quoted, "identification and inspiration....spiritual sustenance and growth....recapture the certainty of evangelical faith....gain spiritual encouragement." Sounds pretty much like regeneration to me.