“Wanted”: Anatomy of an Amish Romance Novel

My college BFF Andrew lives in Cleveland, about an hour away from Amish country in Ohio. Visiting Mesopotamia in Geauga County is invariably the highlight of my trip because A. the Amish make great cheese and B. I find them utterly fascinating. Bearded middle aged men in suspenders riding vintage Schwinn kick scooters down a country lane? Sign me up. I lived in Japan for four years, but almost no exotic culture fascinates me as much as the domestic Amish. They’re white Americans, but they speak a rare dialect of low German, and essentially live in another era, and that blows my mind more than anything.

I’m also fascinated about the rumors you hear about the Amish- heavy drinking, drug dealing (ok wtf is up with this Amish website? They aren’t allowed to use computers) and Rumspringa shenanigans– Rumspringa are the years teenage Amish “run wild” before committing to the church (or not). On a trip to Amish country a few years ago, I even discovered a tawdry looking Amish romance novel, which I regretted not buying to the day.

So on a recent trip to Geauga County I had no choice but to purchase the single Amish romance on offer at the End of the Commons general store: Shelley Shepard Gray’s “Wanted”, book two of the “Sisters of the Heart” series released this past January. (Book 1, “Hidden” deals with an “Englischer” who flees to the Amish way of life to escape an abusive boyfriend and finds love with the brother of Katie, the Amish protagonist of book 2.) The cover features a picture of blue-eyed protagonist Katie Brenneman looking “winsome” (an adjective that is used time and again to describe our heroine) against a field in sunset.

Surprisingly, Amish fiction is a bigger genre than you’d expect. It appears these books are geared toward the “Englisch” (non Amish) audience but enjoy a clandestine popularity within the Amish community. (I suppose it makes a twisted sort of sense that in the scary era of a Black president that sheltered suburban housewives would flee from “bodice ripper” glorified rape fantasies to soothing neocon lit). The book’s author Shelley Shepard Gray isn’t Amish, and the book is published in the Avon Inspire imprint, which specializes in PG rated Christian romances.

The blurb on the back of Wanted seems promising:

Twenty-year-old Katie Brenneman has always quietly fancied Jonathan Lundy. So when the brokenhearted widower asks her to help him take care of his two young girls, Katie knows it will be a trying time—yet she cannot pass up a golden opportunity to get to know this man better.

Just as she’s settling into her new life, a message arrives from Katie’s past, threatening to expose her darkest secrets. During her Rumspringa, her running-around years, she experimented with activities forbidden in the Amish way of life. Frightened by how far she’d strayed from her values, Katie ran back home, vowing to cut all ties with the outside world. Now her transgressions are coming back to haunt her, just as Jonathan seems willing to welcome her into his heart.

Will the past destroy Katie’s chances for love? Or will Katie allow herself to accept God’s love, forgive her past, and receive everything she’s ever wanted?

Andrew and speculated about what the “darkest secrets” might be. His money was on illicit lesbian sexual encounters, while I was hoping for a foray into prostitution. A quick flip through the book, and answers were not forecoming. So I had no choice to but to buy the book and read it. Andrew’s roommate read the first few pages and deemed it “boring,” but clearly he’s not a sensitive enough soul to appreciate the subtle beauty of the Amish romance novel.

Since I’m sure you’re all dying to know the extent of Katie’s sins, here’s a spoiler: they amount to her befriending an “Englisch” brother and sister during her Rumspringa. The brother Brandon proclaims his love to her, at which point she freaks out, joins the church and confesses the truth about her Amishness to them.

In the word’s of Katie’s brother Henry:

She’d go out almost every night. She wore makeup, too…she seemed to embrace everything about the English. And… her running around lasted a long time. [We] were sorely worried that we were going to lose her.

So basically, Katie’s “dark secrets” amount to:

1. Wearing makeup.

2. Going out at night.

3. Watching episodes of the Brady Bunch (no, really)

4. Lying to Englischers about being Amish

5. Lying to her parents and community about her scandalous Rumspringa behavior (but isn’t that the point of the Rumspringa?)

6. “Leading on” Brandon for the attention and then suddenly jilting him for the church when he expresses the desire to pursue a relationship with her.

Yawn.

I’ll admit I actually was reasonably entertained by the book- it had a certain anachronistic Anne of Green Gables/Little House On the Prairiesque charm (quilting! cookie baking! horse and buggies!) that appealed to my inner 7-year-old, much in the way the Twilight books appealed to my inner 14-year-old. But much like Twilight, I was prevented from enjoying the book somewhat by the preachy religious subtext.

The text is permeated by a folksy, Palin-esque dropping of g’s at the end of the present tense, “very” written as “verra” in dialogue, and there’s a healthy smattering of Pennsylvania Dutch, followed by a clunky insertion of the English definition within the sentence itself.

The plot itself- well, what can I say, it would have been so much better if Katie actually had a lesbian experience during her Rumspringa. The book opens with 20-year-old Katie moving in with 28-year-old widower Jonathan Lundy, helping around the house, baking cookies and sewing quilts with his two young daughters in the hopes that he will someday stop grieving the death of his wife Sarah (killed in a tragic buggy accident) and marry Katie instead.

Jonathan’s mourning of Sarah is described in unintentionally pornographic terms:

His wife was gone and in her place was a giant gap of a hole that couldn’t seem to be filled.

And it just gets better:

…it was no use. Like a doughnut, there was no center to their lives. The imagery almost made him smile.

It’s almost like the author thought, “wow, that’s a really dumb simile, I’ll cover my own ass by attributing it to the character instead of my own crap writing.”

Despite Jonathan’s reluctance to take a new wife, the author does a good job of making it sound like he never really loved Sarah in the first place:

He’d never told her much about his tastes and wants…Sarah had been terribly independent, always going wherever she needed to go. He’d never thought much about the dangers of her driving the buggy so much. Maybe if he had, she’d still be here with him. Maybe if he’d tried harder to tell her how much he liked her being at home, she’d still be there.

LESSON #1: If you want to prevent your Amish wife from being killed in a tragic buggy accident, make sure to keep her barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.

Katie is just beginning to win Jonathan over with her homemade quilts, thumbprint cookies and trail bologna sandwiches when the plot THICKENS! Hollie, the sister of Katie’s jilted Englisch beau Brandon, starts leaving vaguely-worded letters for Katie at the general store (since they don’t use the postal service). You see, Brandon has been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and his dying wish is to see Katie one last time.

Almost three years ago [Brandon] had fallen hard for Katie. In return, she’d led him on, and broke his heart…[Holly] found out that Katie had just been pretending to care about them. She’d never intended to go to trade school with Holly…She’d never intended to ever fall in love with Brandon. No, she was Amish.

LESSON #2: Amish women are lying, treacherous bitches who will always choose their plain ways over you. Don’t let your brother fall in love with one.

This is clearly a plot device to get the Englisch love interest out of the way so Katie can marry the Jonathan with no regrets. She hires a townie to drive her to the hospital, where she re-confirms that fact that she never loved Brandon and was only using him for ego validation (which I imagine is in short supply amongst the Amish). He dies the next day. Nice one, Katie.

Once this chapter of her life is closed, Jonathan proposes to Katie on a buggy ride into the forest to collect timber for making a hope chest for his 8-year-old daughter. Katie demurs initially, until she confesses her shameful past to her parents and Jonathan, they pray to Jesus, and frolic in the snow on Christmas Day. The end.

There’s also an excerpt from the next book, “Forgiven,” that deals with Jonathan’s spinster sister Winnie and someone accidentally burning Jonathan’s barn down by *GASP* tossing a lit cigarette butt behind it. Oops.

Apparently these books are selling like hotcakes, so this series ought to keep Shelley Shepard Gray in bonnets and cheese for a while.

This post originally appeared at School for Scandal blog.

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