Why can’t we all be a little more like the Amish? This question lies at the heart of the Amish romance novels, churned out now with such regularity—and with such -success—that publishers are beginning to worry that the market is saturated. “We’re seeing Amish fiction splintering into everything imaginable: Shakers, Puritans,” says Steve Oates, marketing vice president for Bethany House, the Christian publisher whose author Beverly Lewis is the biggest name in Amish fiction. “We call it ‘bonnet fiction.’ You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.” The Thorn, Lewis’s most recent book, has sold 280,000 copies since its publication in September. Lewis herself has sold more than 13 million books in all.
Modeled on the bodice rippers that generations of women have read for escape, Amish romances follow familiar plotlines. An innocent girl, torn between a hot, dangerous boy and a cute, upstanding one, has to make a choice. Disapproving parents, difficult siblings, nosy neighbors—not to mention the warring impulses of lust and restraint—need to be wrestled with and vanquished. But in the bonnet books, passion is beside the point. The aspiration here, for the Amish heroine (and, by extension, her readers), is inner peace, a stable and cohesive community, and obedient children—the result of a right relationship with God.
Sex, if it occurs at all, happens offstage. “We’ll wait till our wedding day to lip-kiss,” says the blond (and bland) beau of Rose Ann Kauffman near the end of The Thorn. The hokey vernacular—who even says “lip-kiss”?—makes a smooch off-limits, a strange ritual performed by foreigners on special occasions.
Mainstream coverage of the “bonnet ripper” phenomenon has been mostly snarky, for who isn’t titillated by a chance to imagine what’s beneath those sober aprons? (And let’s face it: the answer to that question given by Kelly McGillis in the 1985 movie Witness helped make her a star.) But these books hold a profound appeal. In a world where little girls dress like tarts for Halloween and all children seem to imagine that a Wii for Christmas is a God-given right, a description of kids playing quietly with handmade rag dolls during a three-hour church service would rouse any parent’s envy. And in a world where family life is a chaos punctuated by the constant ring of a text-message bell, the Amish emphasis on mealtimes and face-to-face interactions (not Facebook) taps into our collective desire for something saner: something more regulated, more communal, more conscientious.
“There’s a sense in which the modern heart yearns for a time-out, a breather,” says Donald Kraybill, a sociologist at Elizabethtown College and coauthor most recently of The Amish Way. “For me, the Amish raise a lot of questions about the nature of modern life, about individuality and freedom of choice.”
The most ardent fans of the Amish romances are evangelical Christian women who buy the books at Walmart. To them, the Amish represent more than simplicity. Evangelical Christians have among the highest divorce rates in the country; single Christian mothers are often their families’ main breadwinners. For these moms the Amish books are, literally, a fantasy: a picture of the perfect environment in which to raise Christian children. “My readers write to me and tell me they feel the family is fragmented in our society,” says Lewis. “They find such peace in the way Amish children are brought up. There are not many voices vying for the child’s attention. There’s no variance. There’s consistency, cohesiveness.” Lewis herself, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., is an evangelical Christian and a preacher’s daughter.
Romance, tradition, quaintness, peace, and community—our cravings for these qualities rise up again and again, especially at holiday time. But a more careful view requires a colder eye. The Amish are an insular, authoritarian group and, like other, similar communities, have faced accusations of domestic violence and sex abuse. Spanking is a regular, acceptable part of child rearing: as one Amish mother of seven children told Kraybill in his book, “It’s the spanking that makes them so nice.” The Amish do not teach evolution, nor do they see any reason to educate their children past the eighth grade. “They have very stringent lines and barriers for women,” says Kraybill—an Amish girl attending college would be “unheard of,” he says. Modernity has given us much beyond overwork and chaos. Romanticizing simplicity out of frustration or exhaustion, while understandable, is fiction.