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

4.4 out of 5 stars 73 customer reviews

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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
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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: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #620,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Hardcover
As someone who grew up Swartzentruber Amish in the same community as the "Shetler" family I consider this to be one of the best books on the Amish I've ever come across. It accurately tells the real story without being offensive. My only problem with reading it was knowing how private the Amish are I felt like I was eavesdroping! If you are looking for an accurate account of life inside the Swartzentruber Amish community this book is a must read.
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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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just love this book! The author writes several times that it's about his personnal relation with one Swartzentruber family (the most conservative group) over more than a decade. Still it opens the window on the life of the community. Also what's great is that it shows the Amish people as they are: people. Amish society is not all white (as some people might idealize it) but it's not all black either.
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I was looking forward to this book, but found it to be very superficial and quite repetitive-- each chapter seemed to re-cap the previous one, anecdotes circled around without resolution or commentary. I suppose I was looking for a more analytical or academic text. If you are looking for one person's individual experience with one Amish family, without much analysis or reflection, then this is the book for you. It was not the book for me.
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