Amish Fiction

Peter wrote:

Hello Saloma,
I saw your presentation on Saturday at the library in williston. I came in part because in a week and a half I will be leading a discussion about ‘Blood of the Prodigal’ by P. L. Gaus. The discussion is sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council. I know you mentioned some of the writers who have romantisized the Amish and I wonder what you think of Mr. Gaus.

Peter, thank you so much for coming to my talk. It was great to see some familiar faces in the audience.

I don’t think I can help you much with the book you mention… I have not read it, and I have no desire to. I have quite given up on reading Amish fiction, unless it is by someone who was Amish. I don’t care how careful someone is when writing about the Amish, there is just no way for someone in mainstream America to “get it right,” because there are so many nuances about the Amish culture/life/religion that one only gets from having lived it. I don’t often make blanket statements like this, but I’ve given enough Amish fiction books a try to be able to say that.

Just to make sure, I looked Blood of the Prodigal up on Amazon… on the very first page, the author has the young boy thinking thoughts that would be so far from any young Amish person’s thoughts, it is unbelievable. I am referring to the line, “… he had already discovered that the dawn could give him an identity separate from the others.” There are so many things wrong with this sentence, I don’t know where to start. I don’t think ANY ten-year-old thinks about “an identity separate from the others,” never mind an AMISH boy. And in my mind, this is not a well-written sentence, either. (How can the dawn give someone a separate identity?)

The few pages I read, the author is inconsistent, going back and forth between grossdaddy and grandfather. I found this distracting. And then on page 4, the character says, “Kommen Sie.” Again, completely WRONG. The Amish do not speak high German, and not only is this high German, he is using the formal “Sie” instead of “du” form (of “you”). The Amish NEVER use the formal form — until I learned German, I didn’t even know there were two forms of “you” in the German language.

Sorry to be so negative, but reading the first five pages of this book does not make me want to read on… in fact, it makes me realize those of us who have lived the Amish life and have stories to tell need to redouble our efforts to dispel the myths that abound in mainstream America about the Amish. What makes our job harder is when books like this are published — it seems new myths are created each day through “bonnet fiction.”

Beth Graybill wrote an article about this genre in Canadian Mennonite. Here is an excerpt of her article:

And it is a rapidly growing sector. An April 27, 2009, a Time magazine article noted that “romance fiction, of which Amish-themed novels command a growing share, generates nearly $1.4 billion [US] in sales each year, and that number is rising.” According to a July 2009 ABC/Associated Press (AP) news story, although net sales for Christian retailers were down almost 11 percent in 2008, Amish fiction is “the undisputed industry leader.” 

For the full article, click here.

I recommend “A Separate God” for anyone who is interested in reading a realistic novel set in the Amish culture. Lucinda Streicker-Schmidt grew up Amish in Indiana. This novel is based on her own life. I honestly wouldn’t know which parts of her story are made up, because she had her Amish experience to draw upon, making the story authentic, at least in its “Amishness.” This means that the author does not perpetuate the myths that abound.
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6 thoughts on “Amish Fiction”

  1. Interesting to read both your text and the article. I have only read a few Amish fiction books and I was not impressed. Mostly I disliked the characters, they just seemed too good and too perfect and not like real people. I know that Amish people are real and not Christian robots like they seem to be in the fiction books. I am definitely going to check out the book you say is more realistic as it would be fun to read an Amish fiction book that does not make me irritated.

    I loved to learn about the fact that Amish do not use Sie. Speaking only regular German I would have asumed that they did. Do you know the reason for that? Does it have to do with ideas of equality like how some Quakers use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’? Or do you think it is just that Amish fall back on an older German in constructing their dialect?

  2. thanks for your thoughts, maybe I will talk to the Humanities Council about changing the book. I have also been reading Sue Bender’s book book, ‘Plain and Simple.’ Do you have any thoughts on her work?

  3. Elin, I don’t know why the Amish do not use the formal “Sie” form. I don’t know if the dialect they use originally had it and they have dropped it, or whether the dialect didn’t include that in the first place. The closest I’ve been able to come to finding the dialect the Amish use is “Pfaelzisch” from the Rhine region in the Mannheim area. It would be interesting to know if it includes the “Sie” form.

    Peter, yes, I have lots to say about “Plain and Simple.” I’ll do a post on that today.

  4. Thank you for your answer Saloma. As a bit of a language nerd I had to ask if you knew the story. I would really like to learn more about Pennsylvania Dutch, do you know any books? (in English preferably but German could do although that is much harder for me)I am not as much interested to learn how to speak it but more about its structure and linguistics.

  5. Saloma, thank you so much for your very insightful blog! I discovered it a while ago, started reading at the very beginning and am making my way through all your posts in chronological order. It is really interesting to learn about the Amish (or, at least, one specific Amish community – they aren’t all the same, as I’ve learned from your blog) from someone who has been there and experienced growing up in this community. You do a very good job at explaining the Amish way of thinking – despite the concepts being very foreign to anyone who hasn’t grown up in this community.

    Your comment about the dialect Amish use being close to “Pfälzisch”/the German dialect spoken around Mannheim is definitely something I can confirm! It is slowly disappearing though, the Amish dialect reminds me of the way my grandma speaks, or the way my great-grandma used to speak. Most younger people growing up in the area will not speak dialect to the same extent though, it fades with every generation. I come from that area, and from a family rooted in that area for a long time, so was exposed to lots of dialect from when I was little, but was still surprised to be able to sort of understand what the Amish were saying when watching documentaries. I had no idea it was THAT similar. When I read Amish words, it does seem like that dialect written out exactly as it sounds, so I can sort of hear it in my head as I read it. :-)

    I guess you could use the polite form “Sie” instead of “Du” in my childhood dialect, but it’s not something I’d specifically recall (but then I only mostly ever heard that dialect in a strong way within my family or other colloquial settings, where you wouldn’t normally use “Sie” anyway).

    1. Hello Sarah. Thank you for your comments and for confirming the similarities between Pennsylvania German and Pfålzisch. I appreciate your kind words about my blog. It is so gratifying to know you are reading it from beginning to end. When people tell me that now and again, I feel like there is a reason to keep up with my blog. It’s been nearly ten years since I started it, so I sometimes have a hard time finding relevant things to write.

      Happy reading, and I look forward to hearing from you again!

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