Beverly Lewis & Wanda E. Brunstetter:
Plain writing

They are not torrid romances.

Deeply rooted in Christian values, Amish romance by no means falls under the "bodice-ripper" genre of fiction. The characters on their covers, usually women, are beautiful but demure.

Novels about life and love in Amish country -- such as Pennsylvania Dutch Country, in the heart of Lancaster County, Pa. -- are flying off the shelves. Flouting the notion that sex sells, these popular, G-rated "bonnet books" are a growing subgenre of romantic and religious fiction.

"I didn't know if it would be received very well," best-selling author Beverly Lewis said during a recent book-signing stop in Lancaster.

Lewis -- a Lancaster County native living in Colorado -- is credited with launching the Amish romance boom with The Shunning in 1997. It was the first book in her Heritage of Lancaster County trilogy and the first of about two dozen Amish-centric books she has written. To date, Lewis has sold more than 12 million books.

She dismisses her label as a pioneer, noting that authors Carrie Bender and Joseph W. Yoder preceded her. There's no question Lewis popularized the genre, however. Authors following in her footsteps include Amy Clipston, Jerry S. Eicher, Mary Ellis, Suzanne Woods Fisher, Kathleen Fuller, Shelley Shepard Gray, Kelly Long, Beth Wiseman and Cindy Woodsmall.

Linda Byler, a Franklin County Amishwoman, began self-publishing her Lizzie books for the Amish community in 2003; this year, they have been reissued for the general public.

Wanda E. Brunstetter, whose book series include The Daughters of Lancaster County and The Brides of Lancaster County, writes about the Amish, "not because it's a popular topic, but because I know and love so many Amish people, and I want my readers to understand the Amish the way that I do."

Brunstetter said readers enjoy Amish fiction "because people are longing for a more simple way of life, where the focus is on people and not things. The Amish, with their close family ties, are an example of what people are looking for, and many of my readers have told me that they have begun to put into practice some simple things ... that they've learned about the Amish way of life through reading my novels."

Even mystery writers are jumping on the haywagon; P.L. Gaus's Blood of the Prodigal, first in a six-book Ohio Amish Mysteries series, will be reissued this month, followed by Marta Perry's Murder in Plain Sight in December.

The attraction of the Amish is, according to Lewis, a multifaceted affair.

"It's an exotic, cloistered community," she said.

"It's a culture where people sit down and eat three squares a day. They face each other when they talk -- they don't twitter or e-mail. They take the Gospels straight up, and there is a sense of peace and tranquillity in their lives," she added. "If you're Amish, you go to church every other Sunday with your blood kin. You do life together. You do faith together. ... You have a sense of incredible belonging in the Amish community, and people care for each other."

Steve Oates, vice president of marketing for Bethany House, a major publisher of Christian fiction, said the genre's popularity "has to do with people's own longings and aspirations for family and for a life about home and hearth and being together." Other publishers are leaping into the Amish market, he said.

"So much of society today is rush, rush, rush," Oates said. "Here, people can sit down and read about a life where people are caring together. It seems somehow like something they think they would want -- at least until they figure out where the plumbing is.

"It's about a quieter life. They might not want to do it in their own lives, but there's something appealing about it nonetheless. It's a culture where faith is widely accepted, and people like reading about that."

A sampling of readers in Pennsylvania found some common themes of interest in the genre.

"It's light, easy reading," said reader Krisie Chrobot of Hanover. "But it's usually enlightening. There's always a lesson to learn." Chrobot was one of many fans who lined up earlier this month at the Lancaster Barnes & Noble to get Lewis's signature on The Thorn, her latest novel.

"The Amish people come from such a different world. Their lives are so different from ours, I find them fascinating," Chrobot said.

Norma Figueroa of Lancaster said she got into Amish fiction as an escape from past troubles. "I needed something that would make me feel good," she said. "Besides, it's interesting to read about the Amish. We live so close, but I know so little about them. ... I learn something new every time I pick up one of these books."

"It's authentic," added Jackie Clark of Bainbridge, who praised the level of research that goes into the books.

Lewis, who lived two summers with local Amish families, said her novels are "couched in nonfiction."

"My stories are made up, but they could happen. Maybe they have happened," she said. "My books are contemporary, but they read like historical fiction."

Not everyone agrees. Some Amish leaders in Pennsylvania and Ohio, citing theological differences, have banned her books. "They're entertaining, but don't take them as gospel," Stephen Scott, research associate at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, said in a recent interview.

That hasn't discouraged readers, though.

"It reminds you of the old days, the simple life," another Lancaster reader, Kelly Lazowski, said. "Anything Amish, I'll read."

Sue Eichelberger of Lancaster said she grew up around the Amish. "But there's always been a mystery around them. ... I just think they're very special people."

Lancaster's Sheila Elser enjoys "diving into the Plain community ... and the simplicity of their stories." But, she said, "I was a little afraid at first. I thought they might be a joke."

"They're good, wholesome stories. And they're a lot of fun, since we live in this area," said Gayle Walter of Leola. "I've read all of them. I'm not familiar, personally, with the Amish, so this is a learning experience for me."

Ruth Ann Kauffman, retail buyer for Miller's Smorgasbord and the Plain & Fancy Restaurant, both in Lancaster County's thriving Pennsylvania Dutch tourist area, said Amish romance fiction is popular with "the locals and tourists both" at their giftshops. "People love to read about the Amish. And, of course, they love romance," she said.

The difference between these and other romance novels is obvious, Kauffman added.

"They're clean," she said.

Read reviews of several of Beverly Lewis's books.

[ visit Beverly's website ]

[ visit Wanda's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

2 October 2010

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