Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Book Review: Almost Amish

 My knowledge of Amish culture is pretty thin.  I, like many Americans at the time, watched Harrison Ford in "Witness" (my traditional sending off of people, "Be careful out there among the English", dates from that time).  Gene Logsdon has impressions of and interviews with the Amish woven in through several of his books.  The Ravishing Mrs. TB and I took a vacation in Ohio that included Amish country in the early 2000's.  And, of course, I am a reader of Patrice Lewis' Amish Romances (yes, even us mid-fifties guys can enjoy a happy ending).  

That said, the culture and their way of life is fascinating to me - not just because many of their principles, at least as I understand them, are similar to my own, but because they have managed to maintain an effectively thriving counterculture in the press of the modern world.  So imagine my joy when I found a book called Almost Amish:  One Woman's Quest For A More Sustainable Life

Nancy Sleeth and her husband Mark, a former MD, formed a non-profit organization called Blessed Earth, which originally focused on Christian involvement with the environment (but seems to have branched out in their website). In the backstory, Sleeth explains how she and her husband were faced with a series of events - death of her brother at a family gathering, a talking patient, and a particularly hard death in the ER - that caused them to re-evaluate their life choices and decide to go into Christian Ministry full time.  

The book divides Amish beliefs into eight areas - homes, technology, finances, nature, simplicity, service, security, and community - gives a high level application on Amish beliefs, and then applications of these beliefs in the Sleeth's life as well as biblical teaching that correspond to each section.

I really wanted to like this book.  But I went away with almost nothing new.

The book set me off on the wrong foot in the first paragraph of the introduction:

"'What are you, Amish or something?' a large man with a booming voice asked from the back of the room.  I was not surprised by the question, but the tone rattled me a bit.

Open your eyes!  I wanted to reply.  Am I wearing a bonnet?  We arrived in a Prius, not a pony.

The question came at the close of a long day, at the end of a demanding speaking tour.  I was tired, but that's no excuse for my less-than-gracious thoughts.  It was not the first time my family had been compared to the Amish, nor would it be the last.  So why did this question stay with me, long after the seminar ended?"

The Authoress obviously feels that ultimately her response was the wrong one - but to start out her book with both assumptions about people (Large man, booming voice, rattling tone - one can almost see the "person" being described her) and what feels like virtue signaling ("We arrived in a Prius, not a pony") almost immediately, in turn, gave me an impression about what I was going to read.  Simply put, there were other ways to phrase this that would have conveyed the same information without setting the tone that was set - as a blogger, I myself spend a rather surprising amount of time choosing words to communicate precisely what I want to say and avoid giving a different impression than what I intend.  Words, as it has been said, mean things.

The reality is that I had purchased the book under the assumption (mistaken on my part) that this was a book about a woman and her family that had been directly exposed to Amish culture and had made changes in response to it.  Instead, it was a book about decisions their family had made and how it mirrored Amish culture.

The structure of each chapter is as follows:  A story about the section from the authoress' point of view is related. Then high level concepts about Amish culture is relayed, then applications from the authoress' life about how they had already implemented these practices.  Lots about the authoress and her family, not a lot about how the Amish culture influenced it or them.

Another fairly disturbing thing about the book is the apparent lack of actually interaction with actual Amish.  I do not know if the Amish or Mennonite cultures have an issue with interviews or research, but the book seems to be almost completely devoid actual of actual interviews or practices by actual Amish or Mennonites.  Attendance of a Mennonite church service is discussed, and a very brief reference to critical books of the Amish - The Ausbund (Hymnal), The Martyr's Mirror, the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, and the Ordnung (the order of the Church and daily life) - is mentioned as well as brief (two page) history of the Amish - and some interview and listening which is alluded to but neither of which are specifically defined.  The Acknowledgements section seems remarkably free of any thanks to Amish or Mennonite sources (that I can tell), and the references largely consist of a website a single text, Amish Society, and a reference to the movie "Amish Grace", covering the 2006 shooting in a Amish school in the community of Nickel Mines, PA.

I suppose all of this bothers me because it is as if I, with my limited knowledge of Japanese culture, proposed to write a book on the subject having read a single study, some articles, and watched the movie "Shogun".  It would be correct to suggest of my book that it had done nothing but take limited secondary sources and proposed to present them as definitive when a plethora of primary sources are available.  It is at best a weak research methodology.

The book is less about actually Amish practices and thoughts and more about the how the authoress and her family lived according to principles which they decided were important to their family - and how they realized that they were "almost Amish" principles.  Which was less about at the Amish and much more about them.

As I said, I really wanted to like this book.  The ideas that are presented as "Amish" - homes, technology, finances, nature, simplicity, service, security, and community - are ones that I actually resonate with (and I think many of my readers do too, as well as the bloggers on the right over there).  For me at least, it is also written from a Christian point of view - again something I value.  But other than the presentation of some concepts, there was nothing new here I did not know.  Literally, I knew more just based on fictional reading from Lewis and interviews and impressions by Logsdon.

So why does this book exist?

Interestingly the authoress makes an almost throwaway comment in the first paragraph of the first chapter: 

"Last Summer, our daughter interned with a publishing company.  Emma's mentor assigned a wide range of challenging projects, and she learned a lot from them all.  But the assignment where she felt that she felt as though she had the most editing input was an Amish Romance novel."

She then goes on to discuss the popularity of the movie "Witness" and the overall popularity of the so-called "Bonnet Romances" as well as the continuing popularity of tours.  

All of a sudden, what came across to me is this was less of a passion project and more of a suggestion by the publisher of a way to capitalize on a trend.  And capitalization on a trend, especially a surface treatment of it, just never sits well with me.

I really wanted to like this book.  

What will I do with it?  I have not fully decided. There were some sections that really did get me to think and so the book - at least for me - is not without some value.  At the same time, it is highly unlikely that I would consult this book again as I will likely go back and review the other books I have or find some additional primary sources (Amish Society, as it turns out, is still available as a used book for a very reasonable price).

The assessment?  Save your money and start with Logsdon and Lewis, who treat the Amish in the actual context of their practices, not as a comparative study.


  1. I confess to a fascination with the Amish, primarily because of their agrarian culture. (Plus, I love fiction with a happy ending.) My "Amish education" started by reading every Beverly Lewis book our library has. She herself is Mennonite and has Amish friends who read her novels and make suggestions. So, I felt like I get a fairly accurate glimpse into what they believe and why.

    The other day I checked my library for Patrice Lewis's Amish fiction and they have one! Just one, but I requested it and am about halfway through. I'm really enjoying it.

    Unfortunately, marketers will jump on every trend to turn it into a cash cow. They've ruined sports, Pintrest, internet search engines, the Olympics, holiday parades, etc., etc. But, that's what happens in a consumerism based economy.

    1. Leigh - I had absolutely no idea that Patrice Lewis was a Mennonite, although that completely makes sense from what I know about her (and how like the belief system and her to not even mention it). The fact that she Amish friends that provide input makes a great deal of sense and likely adds realism to the books.

      Originally I had bought one of Lewis' romances for the same reason I supported two of the Permies kickstarters: if we want different media, we will have to support it. The second I bought purely because I loved her story telling and the message.

      To be clear, Almost Amish is not unreadable (in all my years, there is only one book I could never finish). It is just so surface that it left me profoundly disappointed. Perhaps if it serves to introduce others to the Amish and their values in a way that inspires more interest, it is useful.

      And, of course, this again demonstrates the geniuses of Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon.

    2. There are two different Lewis's writing Amish romance novels. Patrice is one, Beverly is the other. (https://www.beverlylewis.com/ Beverly has been writing them for decades and is Mennonite. I have no idea about Patrice, who more recent in her fiction writing.

    3. Thanks for the correction Leigh. I had no idea there were two Lewis' writing Amish Romance novels.

  2. Oh boy, a lot to comment on this one. I'll try to keep it short.

    I get books like that all the time where I think it will be about one thing and then it is actually about another. I blame a lot of it on the easy(er) to publish atmosphere that we live in where anyone can self publish a book these days. I think publishers can help, but as you found out, some can be more concerned about an agenda than the quality of the content in the book.

    You may or may not know this but I live among a very large Amish and Mennonite community. In fact, my parents attended a Mennonite church and I did too a few times over the years as I visited them on special occasions. I think most people tend to lump them into their preconceived notions that they get from movies like Witness. Actually, Amish and Mennonites are far from being homogenous cultures. The Amish that live a quarter mile down the road from the farm have nearly totally different belief systems (from my English, as they refer to us, point of view) than the next sect of Amish 15 miles away. I'm sure they have some ties that bind but there are enough that don't that when one becomes familiar with them you can pick out where they are from easily. For example, the Mennonites in my parent's church look and act pretty much like you and I though they tend to be pacifists and not drink much alcohol. A half mile to the east, the Mennonites wear only plain solid color clothes, the females where bonnets and they can only drive completely blacked out vehicles, no chrome. So even if someone like this author writes a book comparing themselves to Amish, it is probably only relative to a few people nearby.

    Finally I would disagree that the Amish have a thriving culture, at least those around me. They have several major problems in their communities right now. One is that they are losing a lot of youth to the "English" and leaving the family and faith. It is becoming such a problem, some of the Amish elders are going to great lengths to punish those who associate with the English in ways not specifically addressed by their church. The second problem is that they are politically divided amongst themselves as we are. Their political divisions though aren't Republican and Democrat but centered around what is acceptable and what is in their religion. The group near us has divided themselves and created their own churches and rules so many times it is hard to keep straight anymore. Sometimes the divisions stay local and other times the minority group up and moves away to parts unknown. It is hard on their families as a result.

    If there was one envious thing of their life to me it would be their gardens however. They are immaculate and they raise bumper crops consistently. But with rational eyes, I probably could too if I had 10 children helping me out on a daily basis with no access to phones, televisions or other modern distractions.

    1. Ed, thanks for the information (and the clarification). My knowledge of where the Amish/Mennonites live is rather vague (for that matter, my knowledge of where Quakers live is also rather vague).

      I will note that this book was originally written in 2012, so perhaps the problems were not as widespread as you note now - or perhaps they were; simply put and based on the research presented, I have no way of assessing it. And this is really my beef with the book - it is at best a very surface reading of an entire sub-culture, something which if practiced in other things, would have earned scorn (and rightly so).

      In terms of gardens - or any other sort of thing - I think we underestimate how much modern distractions take away from such things.

  3. P.S. Even my parent's Mennonite church went through a split recently over the issue of females as pastors.

    1. The splitting of churches now seems to be a national sport.

  4. If you are looking for a decent book about Amish and about children leaving the order, Ira Wagler's "Growing Up Amish" is pretty decent. I never knew Ira personally but knew of his family during their time in Iowa.

    1. Thank you for the suggestion Ed!

    2. Ed, doing a bit more "research" (e.g., Amazon), it appears that he wrote a sequel called "Broken Roads: Returning To My Amish Father"

    3. I wasn't aware of that but I know his "leaving" in the book "Growing Up Amish" wasn't a one and done thing. It took place multiple times over many years and he struggled with his decision. So it wouldn't surprise me if he eventually returned though like your original post, "Returning To My Amish Father" might me something else altogether.

    4. Ed, perhaps the other moral of the store is find good recommendations.

  5. There is a recent (2020) Website about Amish America that I have followed.
    Unlike Ms. Sleeth, the author visits and even lives with the Amish.
    He has some great videos as well.
    You might try him.

    1. Skwab - Thanks very much for the recommendation! Much appreciated!


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