We have all seen them. There is no point in denying it—for fifty cents in cardboard boxes at yard sales, or shoved rudely in the magazine aisle of the grocery store, or on the sad, half empty bookshelves of our sad, half-empty Kmart. This is a genre as perplexing as it is intriguing: the Amish romance novel.
I’ve often wondered about these pieces of literary gold in what is, I realize, an abundant amount of free time spent at book stores. They are not what one would normally associate with the Amish, particularly if one has grown up in Lancaster County. The covers are adorned with wistful young women in white bonnets, gazing into the distance, out beyond the reader, or furtively looking back, frightened and shunned. The trade itself is so synonymous with tales of lust and drama it is difficult to imagine a story of the modest Amish finding any sort of niche.
The mystery, perhaps the mere existence, of these books can be troubling. Are they aimed specifically toward the Amish? Are they accurate, let alone respectful, to our peaceful and traditional neighbors?
It would seem, however, that this dramatization of the Amish lifestyle is not solely a modern phenomenon. In “The Thrill of the Chaste: Tracing the Ancestry of the Amish Romance Novel,” Valerie Weaver-Zercher, who is working on a book concerning the subject, discusses the history and influence of the genre.
“The subtitle of the lecture is ‘Tracing the Ancestry,’” she explained. “I really came up with that as a way to summarize the lecture without the intent to trace genealogy, but I decided to focus on it. The history is such [an] illuminating way to look at the novels.”
For almost a century, readers have enjoyed this brand of bodice-ripper, with chastity and faith as the central focus. The books first appeared around the turn of the century, and they have continued to gain popularity and influence through the decades, culminating in the 1997 classic “The Shunning” by Beverly Lewis, after which the romantic genre was “officially” born.
“‘The Shunning’ is actually the descendant of what is a very long history,” Weaver-Zercher said. “During the lecture we’ll be looking at the forebearers of the genre. The first novels, those written before [the] 1960s, really didn’t have much of a devotional element to them; modern ones almost always do have this evangelical Christian perspective.”
Weaver-Zercher, the Young Center’s Snowden Fellow for fall 2011, will draw parallels between the earlier works and their modern counterparts, and explain how the novels reflect social, literary and religious changes that have taken place since their debut.
“The books have always intersected with bigger issues,” Weaver-Zercher said. “They reflect views on religion and gender, as well as the wider societal view of reading romance novels. Amish fiction intersects with historical events and literature styles.”
The lecture will take place on Nov. 17 in the Bucher Meetinghouse of the Young Center at 7:30 p.m., and promises to be a compelling discussion. Weaver-Zercher hopes to look at the impact the books have had on society.
“In terms of accuracy,” she said, “I think there is no standard… some authors take a lot of time and care doing research and making the books authentic; others don’t. But what is fiction supposed to be about, anyway? Is it supposed to be accurate or entertaining?”
Accurate or not, Weaver-Zercher recognizes that they have not gone unnoticed by those they are portraying.
“The Amish are aware of the books,” she said. “They hold a variety of opinions on them, just like anyone else would.”
As a generation brought up to “never judge a book by its cover,” it is all too often we judge actual books by their covers. The idea of a novel with romance, intrigue and drama in the world of the Amish seems absurd. Perhaps potential readers are too quick to shun the novels. The upcoming lecture in the Young Center, open to students as well as the community, should provide an interesting view of the books as well as the culture that influences them.
“I had never read the books,” Weaver-Zercher said with a laugh, “until I started writing my own. The whole phenomena around the genre is fascinating!”