Most people like it, I think, when a novel has been well-researched to get the local landmarks right. One of my best friends lived for a while in Arizona, and assured me he could take me to an exact tree so well described in one of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee Navajo mystery novels. Although Wendell Berry made up the town of Port Williams, the map in Hannah Coulter sure makes you think it is real. Better, his solid descriptions of the topography and road names and farm buildings allow the reader to inhabit this place, knowing it is so very real.
Beverly Lewis is a beloved leader in what has come to be termed “Christian fiction” which, of
course, is a product category of the evangelical sub-culture which our store serves. Yes, yes, the novels of Victor Hugo and Flannery O’Connor–heck, even the Canterbury Tales–are Christian fiction but nowadays, this has come to mean inspirational stories published by evangelical publishers, written for religious readers, where the faith and devotion of the characters comes to particular focus. Some of this religiously-overt storytelling has been of poor quality (artistically and theologically) and has justly gotten a bad rap from sophisticated critics. However, we ought not be too quick to dismiss it all as sentimental silliness; some is quite fine. And, it has always been our joy to celebrate good stories being read. (These days, I’m usually glad if people are reading anything at all, and glad that there are those who are hooked on books, even if it ain’t the Pulitzer stuff. Ms Lewis has sold literally millions of books, won awards and is truly a best-selling author.) So-called Christian fiction these days is, it seems, a mixed bag, but, in fact, some of the releases coming out of publishers like Zondervan, Waterbrook, Cook, Nelson and (recently) Abingdon, are really very nicely done. So we’re happy.
Bethany House has always been one of the leaders of this sort of historical inspirational fiction and while we cringe, still, at some of the cheesy romance-type covers, they have always done some very good work. Do you recall how in the ’80s they were releasing abridged editions of the remarkable novels of George MacDonald? Those stories of faith and doubt inspired even C.S. Lewis, so we are glad for the editors at Bethany who have brought to the mainstream talented evangelical writers who can tell a good yarn, teach us a few things, and help us feel the stuff we feel when we are engaged by a well told tale.
As you can see from the headline above, we are hosting an author book signing reception with Beverly Lewis, one of the mega-selling giants in this field of Christian fiction. Although she has all kinds of stories, from kids books to cookbooks, her specialty lately has been Amish stories, in part, because it runs deep in her own family’s story. Her own grandmother and her story was the inspiration for Lewis’ popular series that began with The Shunning. And, she has endeavored to get the details right, including the landmarks in Lancaster County. In a recent interview about her brand new “Rose Trilogy” (the first book, The Thorn, released last week) she said how eager she was to show some of her publicists and tour managers the very spots she describes. A few years ago she was privileged to move in with an Amish family for several months to learn about the Plain life; few writers are able to get those details right as she can. I think the authenticity of the terrain and culture of the Amish that she captures is one of the features of her books that has allowed them to become best-sellers. Mrs. Lewis knows what she’s talking about, even though the details are just the setting and context for the human dramas of faith and integrity and romance that are the heart of her books. We are tickled to get a chance to meet her and glad she will be chatting with folks in our community here.
In the last few years, every publisher, it seems, has done something Amish-related. (Put a “bonnet on it” and it will sell, some cynically say.) There are reasons for this, I suppose, and I should like to note two: As our culture becomes increasingly harsh, electronic, fast-past, materialistic, and dislocated from a sense of place, the radical Anabaptist traditional of the Amish offers an alternative vision. Literary fascination with “the simple life” has been a staple of the American search for meaning (think of Thoreau) and stories about those who are befriended by the Amish have been popular for years. (Do you recall Sue Bender’s wonderful rumination Plain and Simple that came out in 1989? It is still in print! Rosanna of the Amish–set in Mifflin County just north of us here in Pennsylvania— a favorite of my mother, and still considered a classic, was published in 1940. Or, think of the movie The Witness with the oh-so-young Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. The very first cook-book we ever sold when we opened nearly 30 years ago, I think, was a popular Amish one.) The more modern our culture becomes, and the more we feel the fall-out of our high-strung suburban ways, it seems the more some of us, at least, long for even hints of new ways to live. Even if we reject their rejection of electricity and zippers, say, our imaginations can be stretched as we consider how to find a more sustainable, peaceful, and sane way of arranging our lives.
Secondly, the tragic murder of some Amish schoolgirls near here a few years ago catapulted their quiet community into international fame when the bereaved parents offered forgiveness to the killer. There has been a moving Hallmark movie (that was not particularly accurate, and offensive to some) made of the incident, drawn rather loosely from what is by far the best book
on the subject, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, written by our friend Donald Kraybill, and his co-authors Stephen Nolt and David L. Zercher-Weaver. How these folk who try to follow Jesus in loving even their enemies could extend grace to this disturbed murderer is truly amazing, and ever since the Nickle Mines tragedy, there has been a renewed interest in Amish fiction. I don’t think anyone is knowingly exploiting the tragedy nor the plain ways of the Amish, but there has been a plethora of titles released, fiction and non. And we have a lot of them, and are eager to serve those who are interested in this painful, but illuminating story.
(An interesting aside: a buddy of mine is a minister and an EMT. He lives very near the scene of the murder and had some connections to the family of the shooter. He was on the scene in moments, and as the days unfolded, he learned quite a lot. Some was quite ugly—the numerous press helicopters wouldn’t move out of the way for the emergency hospital helicopters–but some things were just weirdly am
using. Of course the grieving Amish did not want to talk to the press; as you surely know, they don’t care about such things. Yet, Oprah‘s pushy people kept insisting to speak with them, cameras and mic at the ready. My friend shooed them away. They insisted. Finally, they begged him to tell the Amish parents that it was Oprah’s producers, Oprah, you know! When he confidently told them that they didn’t know who that was, they were dumbfounded. Is there anybody in the land who doesn’t know about Oprah? Apparently there are.)
Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning was the first Amish novel that Bethany (or any other evangelical press)
released, and Wanda Brunstetter, Cindy Woodsmall, Beth Wiseman, and the others are all in her debt. Her new novel, The Thorn, continues to explore questions of Amish culture and faith, and the poignant questions of how sub-cultures and immigrants and outsiders relate. Anybody remember the wonderful Chaim Potok novel about Hasidic Jews, The Chosen (or nearly any of his others, for that matter.) Or a little play called Romeo & Juliette? This is classic, heavy, tender, serious, relevant stuff. Sure most of these novels tend to be light romances or soap opera suspense. Thank goodness that Beverly Lewis can introduce us to these large themes, raise questions about faith and romance and identity and choice and loyalty, all set within an easy-to-read, enjoyable, popular-level fiction.
I mentioned the very important work Amish Grace by Kraybill, Nolt, and Zercher-Weaver. The three have teamed up for a second book, very much a follow-up to and continuation of their first one. It just came, and we are so excited.
It is called The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World (Jossey Bass; $24.95.) Kraybill may be the premier scholar of the Amish–he is a sociologist by trade, and Anabaptist himself, and his academic studies of the Amish, Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites, and other such groups are mostly published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Here, the three amigos of Amish Grace offer their wise insights and writing gifts to offer what I think will soon be considered the definitive and classic book for ordinary readers on Amish faith and life. There are personal stories, here, solid history, remarkable testimony, solid anthropological expertise and—as Dorothy Bass puts it in one review—it is “beautifully written…the authors’ appreciative and nuanced portrait helps us understand the Amish way of life—and challenges us to reflect on our own.” We couldn’t agree more, and celebrate this brand new, helpful, accurate, and provocative study. Kudos to the authors, for bringing this witness to us all. Kudos to the publisher, daring to share this book which isn’t so much about the high drama of the shooting, and therefore less spicy. We trust it will be very well received.
By the way, guess whose blurb graces the back cover, first in a list of many? Ja--as we say here in Pennsylvania Dutch-land—Beverly Lewis! She gets the final word: “The Amish Way is enlightening, practical, and well-researched. A wonderful read!”
Know anybody that would like an autographed copy of any of the many Beverly Lewis novels? Just send us an order by Saturday morning and we can get it autographed for you. Want to think even more deeply about the call of the radical Anabaptists, the virtues of “patient faith in a perilous world?” The Amish Way is a gem, a great, good read. Highly recommended.