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Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish Hardcover – May 15, 2007


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The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward
When the best option is to let go of the life you planned for yourself and find a new path, a world of possibilities can surprisingly open up.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (May 15, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807010642
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807010648
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #535,371 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In an engaging personal memoir, Mackall, an Ohio-based writer and professor of English, describes the close-knit relationship he has cultivated over more than a decade with a neighboring Amish family. This is neither an exposé nor an outsider's fanciful romanticization of the Amish. By focusing on the loves and losses of one large Amish clan, Mackall breathes life into a complex group often idealized or caricatured. He refers, for example, not to "the Amish" writ large, but instead to "the Swartzentruber Amish I know," describing in some detail the tremendous differences between the Swartzentrubers, by far the most traditional sect, and the Old Order, New Order, Beachy and other Amish groups. The Swartzentrubers not only eschew electricity but also padded or upholstered chairs, souped-up buggies, indoor plumbing, the tradition of rumspringa (a running-around period for some Amish teens) and—perhaps most important for this narrative—contact with "the English." Mackall's is the first book to venture behind-the-scenes of this most conservative Amish group. At times Mackall is critical of the Swartzentruber way of life (such as when an eight-year-old girl dies in a buggy accident because the sect rejects safety measures for buggies), but it is a deeply respectful account that never veers toward sensationalism. (June)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* As this wonderful and enlightening book makes clear, the Amish are hardly a monolithic group. Actually, there are many different orders of Amish. The decidedly non-Amish Mackall has lived among the Swartzentruber Amish of Ashland County, Ohio, for more than 16 years. The Swartzentruber are considered the most conservative Amish, eschewing gas, electricity, and indoor plumbing. Even their ubiquitous buggies are driven without lights. Over the years, Mackall developed a friendship with the Shetler family, and Plain Secrets is an affectionate portrait of a family as well as a way of life. Some stereotype and romanticize the Amish, saying they represent an ideal, preindustrial American community. Others sensationalize them as backward religious fanatics. Mackall knows the Shetlers as persons, not cardboard figures, and he has readers get to know them as persons, too. His is hardly black-and-white portraiture. The Amish he writes about are as complex and flawed as any non-Amish. Although he admires their connection to the land and devotion to family, he is conflicted about the future of Amish girls, who live under a resolutely patriarchal household regime, in particular. This is a loving portrait, warts and all, of an often-misunderstood people. Sawyers, June

Customer Reviews

This book is well written and I enjoyed reading it.
Tami from Kentucky
In this very well written book, Joe Mackall explores the life of the Amish, focusing on the strictest order of this sect, the Swartzentruder.
Tom Bruce
This book gave a very insightful look into the most conservative Amish people.
Christine L.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Grateful Reader on July 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
With finely honed prose as honest and deep as the people portrayed here, the author opens a window into a world we couldn't otherwise experience. I loved learning about the most conservative Amish, but I took even greater pleasure in getting to know this one Amish family. The author is careful in avoiding sterotypes and generalizations. Instead, he paints a world for the reader, using language that allows us to sense and feel the wonder for ourselves. It's by far the best Amish book out there, and the best book of any kind I've read in a long time.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Am so glad the author has written this book, because I have had Amish friends, both old order and modern, since 1990 and have learned so much from them as well as how so many outsiders (English) do indeed either romanticize about the way they live or sadly mock and make fun of them. I have a number of books on plain living that involve Amish, Quaker, Mennonite ways.

And am glad to see this book from someone who is writing about a great friendship with one person and his family. And am so glad to see (unlike other books on the Amish) the author go out of his way to remind the reader that what he is writing about is his personal experience with one small group or member of one sect of the Amish.

It has also allowed me on my quest to live a more simple life to see that less can be more and that much of what modern society says is a must, actually makes for more work. Like carpeting which gets dirtier and is harder to clean than a wood floor that can be swept and damp mopped. Or wallpaper that gets stained over the years and goes out of date, and thus is not a real need.

If nothing else this wonderful book Plain Sects: An Outsider Among The Amish may well educate others about what really matters in life. As well as allow the reader to see that a work ethic that actually involves hard work can be good for the mind body and spirit. People can also learn how a community takes care of its own, and what true forgiveness is.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By J. Bartley on September 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In this window into the day to day life of members of a strict Amish sect, Joe Mackall delivers a clear and reflective portrait of a people living fully in accordance with their beliefs. As Mackall opens and warms to the family he comes to know as intimately as any "English" can expect to know the Amish, we also are drawn into their circle of faith. But he does not exclude us from his doubts about the limitations of such a life. He talks with young people who have fled their Amish upbringing and we feel, with them, the anguish of their choice. In leaving to enter the larger world, they find themselves shunned by family and community, bereft of any support as they try to find work and support themselves with only an eighth grade education and no proof they are even U.S. citizens. For those who stay, the life is a hard one, full of intense peace and also staggering losses. Their families are large, but children often die due to inadequate health care, and also as a result of accidents involving the horse-drawn buggies they drive on dangerous roads. These conflicts of faith and practice abound, and Mackall gives patient regard to every facet of the choices these Amish make as well as the choices he, himself, makes in living life as each believes he should. In addition, the writing is nearly transparent. I'd thought to read a few pages every night before bed, but found myself finishing the book in less than a week, grateful for Mackall's insight.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on November 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Neither a scholarly treatise nor a vilification, an idealization nor an exposé, Joe Mackall's PLAIN SECRETS is a narrative that explores one man's relationship to an Amish family and, by extension, a community.

Mackall, who lives in Ashland County, Ohio, befriends the Shetler family: Samuel, Mary and their nine children (names changed by the author). Over the years, living in close proximity to the Shetlers, Mackall develops as close a relationship with the family as an Englisher might be allowed. What emerges is the peace, beauty and goodness of the culture, as well as the disturbing questions he finds himself asking about legalism, the rights of women and the protection of children. His friendship with the family also helps him learn more about himself. "I have chosen...to mine the raw material of their everyday lives in search of everyday truths," writes Mackall.

It's an immersion into the world of the Swartzentruber, the most traditional and strict of the Amish sects. The Swartzentruber refuse to use reflective signs on the back of their buggies, leave school after the eighth grade, bathe only once a week and carry no insurance. The women are not permitted to wear bras and are not allowed to shave their underarms or legs.

However, there are plenty of surprises. This conservative sect shops at Wal-Mart and loves the Dollar Store, and may enjoy junk food such as Milky Way candy bars and potato chips. Although they don't practice "rumspringa" like many other Amish sects, the Swartzentruber Amish let their teens go on "dates," in which a teenage boy and girl spend the night together, side by side, in her bed.
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