Book Review: Simple Pleasures by Marianne Jantzi

I breathed deeply and reveled in the beautiful morning. The vehicles hummed by on the pavement, the sun burned the mist off the river, and the birds busily ate breakfast. ~ Marianne Jantzi

SimplePleasures

If you are interested in Amish life and you are tired of those Amish fiction books produced by the mass market, then Simple Pleasures is a must read for you. Marianne Jantzi offers fascinating slices of her Amish life in Milverton, Ontario in these witty, charming, and plainspoken stories. Because she is authentically Amish, you will not find photos in this book, but you won’t miss them, either. Marianne ‘paints’ pictures in vivid details with her prose. Her stories evoke nostalgia for the “simple pleasures” we often associate with a bygone era.

As I was reading this book, I often felt like I was having afternoon tea in Marianne’s kitchen with her as her little ones slept. The stories she tells evoke nostalgia for my own Amish childhood. Who knows, had I grown up in a family like the one she is raising, I might be one of those Amish grandmothers living in a Dowdy Haus with her grandchildren next door.

Marianne is clearly contented with her Amish life. She finds reasons to be grateful throughout the book. On page 59 she writes: One day we were like the children in Dr. Suess’s The Cat in the Hat who thought it was too wet and cold so they sat inside and did nothing.” A few paragraphs later, she writes: “Later that week, I breathed deeply and reveled in the beautiful morning. The vehicles hummed by on the pavement, the sun burned the mist off the river, and the birds busily ate breakfast.”

I loved these poetic moments. However, at times I wanted more ‘dutchy’ words. Most Amish people cannot help but use them, but Marianne has clearly honed her writing style and it seems she has made an effort to edit these expressions out. Still, there were a few such nuggets. On page 26 she writes about spending time with relatives during hunting season: “Even though we didn’t come back with any buck stories…” I do believe the only time I’ve ever heard the term “buck stories” is among Amish men. A few pages later, she writes about caribou hunting. She gives a sense of the great distance the hunters need to travel from Milverton, three-fourths of the way up to the top of Quebec, “to where the road ran out.” I chuckled with delight when I came across her occasional Amish way of saying things.

There is only one place in the book in which the reader gets a glimpse of the author longing for something not allowed in her community. On page 121, she writes, “It’s not uncommon to wish to do things we can’t. Like type. I wish I could type my own Connection (a publication she writes for) letters. That would relieve someone of the job of typing each of my handwritten letters.” She then pivots around to being thankful for being able to write in cursive.

Marianne offers a contrast between her Amish life and the mainstream culture on page 116, when she cites an article from her local newspaper about the stress level of women in the mainstream culture: workplace stress, finding sitters for their children, dropping them off and picking them up, and striving to do things perfectly. Marianne writes: “We live beside this stressed-out region. Thankfully, most of the women’s stress factors are not mine. I am not a provider; I do not have a job away from home, nor do I plan a schedule for my children.”

Marianne’s viewpoint is interesting. In the mainstream culture we equate liberation with having abundant choices. Marianne is finding liberation in not having to make these tough choices. However, she also realizes that Amish people are not exempt from the urge to be perfect. “We want well-behaved children with clean, neat clothes. Our gardens are hoed, lawns are mowed, and homes are scrubbed well, while our children are peppered with, ‘What would people think if they saw this mess?’ Mother is in a tizzy because company is coming and they must not see lack of management.”

Marianne has hit on a key aspect of Amish life. It seems like it is part of the fabric of the culture, even though most Amish don’t recognize it. The author tells a story that illustrates this well.

One day a visitor brought gifts for the children, including a coloring book for daughter, Alyssa. Marianne listened as Alyssa told the visitor, “I can’t color… I just scribble.” The visitor explained that when she was three, she scribbled too. She sat down with Alyssa, encouraged her, and soon Alyssa was confidently coloring her page. Marianne writes: “Her watching mother knew exactly why Alyssa was sure that she couldn’t color. My standards were too high for her abilities. I would outline her picture and instruct her not to go over those lines. After all, I wanted my little girl to know how to properly color when she went to school.”

I commend Marianne for her courage to admit this to herself and to share it with her readers.

I find one fault with Simple Pleasures. I found it disorienting that the stories are arranged thematically rather than sequentially. Her third child shows up on page 36 like this: “… I took my third-born, a fourteen-month bundle of energy…” I said, “Huh? Where did that baby come from?” A few pages later, “Eric had a coughing fit from a spray Allan had used.” Two things hit me here. Eric had not yet shown up, unless he was that fourteen-month old from earlier, and what in the world was Allan spraying?

Several pages later, Marianne writes: “We were in the hospital again. What a wonderful place to be when your baby is blue and white and limp as a Raggedy-Ann doll.” First of all, I felt that she skipped the traumatic part of this story by abruptly plunking the reader into the scene at the hospital. Then, in the following sentence, the reader discovers it is Eric who is the baby who couldn’t breathe. I find it odd that one doesn’t actually read about Eric’s arrival into the world until another 59 pages later.

One cannot help but be impressed with all that Marianne manages to do: mother four little ones, including gardening and canning, run a shoe shop, and still find time to write (all without modern conveniences). I am most likely not the last reader who will be happy she has enough energy to share her stories with us.

Disclosure: I received a copy of “Simple Pleasures” from Herald Press in exchange for an honest review.

 

Above is the review I posted on Goodreads and Amazon. I now want to reflect on Simple Pleasures in a more personal way for those of you who know me.

I related to Marianne in so many ways. It’s like I received a glimpse of the life I could have lived, had I stayed among the Amish and had I married a man I loved and who was a good provider. Marianne and I both taught school when we were single. She is, and I was, an at-home mother. We both tend to be perfectionist. And we both appreciate the sense of community in Amish life.

But there is also a big difference between Marianne and me. She is much more contented in her Amish life than I ever was. Her longing for a typewriter was a reminder of the choices I have that she does not. I certainly like being able to type out my thoughts on the screen in front of me, and occasionally stop and look out at this beautiful spring day. I can also take a break and walk down the hall to change my laundry over, rather than having to start a gasoline motor on a wringer washer. If I need groceries, I can drive my car, rather than having to hitch up a horse and take more time to get to where I am going.

There is a tradeoff for all this, though. I gave up the sense of heritage and community that is part of Marianne’s everyday life. What I wouldn’t have given when I was raising my children to have a “Mommy Over There” (the term Marianne’s children use for their grandmother living on the other side of the wall) and how I miss family and community gatherings!

It all comes down to being Amish or not. Marianne writes in longhand and is contented with her Amish life, surrounded by her four young children, and supported by a whole community, including “Mommy Over There.” I write from my home in Massachusetts, 600 miles from where my people are. I married the love of my life, we raised two healthy sons, and I took advantage of an educational opportunity of a lifetime when I earned a degree at Smith College that included living in Germany for a semester. I’ve published two books, and appeared in two PBS documentary films, “The Amish” and “The Amish: Shunned” that aired on American Experience. For me, the sacrifices were worth the freedom I gained. I am almost certain they would not be for the author of Simple Pleasures. This is a good example of how we cannot have it all.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Simple Pleasures by Marianne Jantzi”

  1. I have a childhood friend who left the Amish with her husband 50+ years ago. She says that if her husband (also ex-Amish) would agree, she would go back to Kansas and return to the Amish. My guess is that what she really misses is what you – and Marianne Jantzi – write about, the simple and warm community she and her family grew up in.

    Speaking of ‘Amishisms’, I have a friend who once found herself saying that she had ‘thrown her bed shut.’ :)

    1. Funny thing… David and I have often talked about how he would have been a more contented Amish person than I ever was. I think he would sooner go back than I would.

      “Sie hot’s Bett zu schmisse?” Was? Huh? I’m not getting it.

  2. Thanks for the book review. I am always looking for books on the Amish, by the Amish. I prefer them to the fictional. Not to say I haven’t read some Beverly Lewis and Wanda Brunstetter!!!! I guess we all struggle to fine that happy medium. I know I do. like the women of the Amish faith I like to cook and bake and can. Hang my laundry out to dry and work in my gardens and happily add to my compost pile. However, I also like to learn, watch TV, go to the movies, have an occasional glass of wine. Each world has its good points and bad. I think the big difference is that those of us outside of the Amish faith can pick and choose (to a certain extent) what we want our life to be. What parts of a slower, simpler life we want for ourselves and our family and what we want from the “English” world. I’m looking forward to reading “Simple Pleasures”!!! Thanks Saloma

    1. Also, I liked your book review and thanks for sharing your perspective with us. As always,great insight. Hope spring has begun to wake up from its winter slumber there as it has here!

      1. Pamela, I think you are right… that we have more of a choice about the life we live than Amish women do. But if you read the book, they also have something we don’t… that sense of heritage/traditional community. For all my choices, I haven’t been able to replace that aspect of Amish life to this day.

        You are quite welcome for the book review. And thank you for being so appreciative!

  3. Saloma, you are so right about what they have that we in the English world greatly lack. Being completely self reliant isn’t always a good thing. We can say that we “belong” to a certain community but it has a totally different meaning from what “community” means to the Amish. I have to tell you that my favorite part in “Shunned” is when you talk about your fathers funeral and how you wont have what he had. Your words are so moving, so heart felt, that no matter how many times I watch it that part always makes me cry.

    1. Pamela, it’s true… there is community… and then there are the Amish. I think of the difference being my chosen community versus my inherited community. It sounds like the first is more desirable, but it means that I had to forego certain aspects of my inherited community to be able to choose. The part of the film you mentioned is exactly what is hardest. The Amish outlook on death and their rituals are just so deep and meaningful.

      Thank you for letting me know what part of the film moved you. I had another person tell me the same thing just recently.

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