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Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish Hardcover – May 15, 2007
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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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*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
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The author doesn't romanticize the Amish. He doesn't portray them as quaint gentle people living a picturesque, agrarian ideal
The author doesn't demonize the Amish. He doesn't picture them as freaks.
He doesn't stereotype. He sees that the Amish are just like the rest of us. Some are dour; some are funny. Some are pleasant; some are cranky. Some are smart; some are not.
The difficulties faced by people who try to leave the Amish faith are explored. It's not just the "shunning" that is the problem. The Amish are undereducated, especially the girls, making it very hard to break away. The author explores these difficulties by introducing us to Jonas, a young man in the process of breaking away.
The author shares some frightening information about the dangers of driving around in buggies. When a heavy metal car hit's a light wooden buggy, the buggy loses. The Amish are stubbornly fighting against safety measures that would make their buggies more visible, and that would protect the occupants in the buggies--especially the children.
The book really needed a better editor, perhaps even a co-author. Some of the sentences are awkward. It could be better organized, less repetitious.
Something about the author's attitude bothered me, and I can't really put my finger on what it was. It had to do with his feelings about knowing an Amish family. He realized that is was unusual for an Amish family to allow an "English" person into their lives as much as he was. He almost bragged about how special this was--though bragged maybe isn't the right word. Yet, he chafed at not being let in all the way. He was bothered when he's left out of Amish events, and when the Amish friends can't attend his daughter's wedding. I'd think anybody who knew and lived among the Amish would have understood.
Some aspects of Amish life aren't explored as fully as they could have been. The author says repeatedly that he is worried about how the book will impact his friendship with the Amish neighbor, and hopes that the things he says in the book won't get the Amish friends into trouble with their church. My impression is that he held back on some things out of fear of hurting the friendship. While this is perfectly understandable, it doesn't make for an insightful book.
All in all, just an okay book.
Though we can be puzzled about some Swartzentruber's ways, as Joe Mackall is, we can learn a big deal from them, too. A lot.
I wouldn't recommend the book to people who are motivated by the "secrets" in the title. It's true that the Schwartzentruber (how it's spelled out my way) Amish are harder for the English to get to know than, say, Lancaster County Old Order Amish, but that doesn't make them secretive, nor does the author spill secrets in a hushed tone.
Instead, the book offers a well-written, thoughtful memoir of a friendship between an Amish man and an English man. The structure and pacing are excellent, and I find Mackall's observations to be spot-on. These are portraits of an extended family, not generalizations about all Schwartzentrubers or all Amish or even all farmers.
In fact, I wish that the author had continued in that vein, omitting most of the drama associated with the tale of a young man who chose to leave the church. The book was lovely and fascinating without the subplot. I would disagree with Tolstoy's pronouncement that all happy families are happy in the same way--in other words, boring. The book would have been just fine if the meaning of the friendship between the men, and between their wives, were the entire content.
And now, my beef. The author allows himself two rants--one about the question of the happiness of Amish women, who take a subordinate role, and one about the safety of Amish children. I feel that he stepped out of the relationship in the book to address the reader directly in words he would never use to his friends. In film, we would say that Mackall broke the third wall when he vented his frustration to the readers instead of to his friends. It felt like a violation of the friendship as I read it, and it doubly felt as though Mackall didn't "get" the core of the culture. It's about the faith--the faith that God doesn't make mistakes, the faith that His ways are not our ways, the faith that we are not here to stay.
So this is a very good book, a groundbreaking description of one district of Schwartzentrubers. The subtitle is a much better descriptor than the title, and there are some pages I could have lived without. Even with my reservations, I don't regret the purchase, and I would recommend it to my English friends. I would also read other works by Joe Mackall, because he's an excellent storyteller and painter-with-words.
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