As I ponder the appeal of Amish stories, I think I can best illustrate it with two very compelling images: the image of a family gathered at the dinner table, and the image of a family seated in a church pew.
Faith and family are the essence of Amish life—the unshakable foundations of that life—and we who read (and write) these stories are drawn by those values. For readers my age and older, these images takes us back to The Way We Were as a nation in our own lifetimes: we can recall when sports and social activities and business demands were not allowed to intrude into our family lives during the dinner hour or on Sundays—and often on Wednesday nights, which were reserved for youth and choir activities at church.
And while we know those times were not as perfect or ideal as Norman Rockwell paintings depict, we crave those days. Faith and family came first, and parents and grandparents took responsibility for seeing that those priorities were maintained in our homes. That’s how the Amish have lived for centuries.
I suspect readers who are 40 or younger are drawn to the same ideal, the same Norman Rockwell simplicity of times gone by. It’s not so much that the Amish don’t appreciate what modern technology can do (and I lump electricity, cars, and computers/the Internet into this term). Many of them partner with Mennonites to have websites and electricity for their businesses (as my Miriam Lantz does, in the Seasons of the Heart series) to attract tourists, which in turn better supports their families. But the Amish control technology, rather than allowing technology to control them.
By not allowing electricity or phones into their homes, they have decreed that recreational chit-chat, TV, texting, tweeting, gaming, and Facebook will not distract them from their two bedrock priorities: faith in God, and keeping their families together, emotionally and financially. I think this is what readers respect most about the Amish, even if they wouldn’t want to live that way themselves.
It’s also important to note that—just as Norman Rockwell idealized the everyday aspects of our lives 50 years ago—any sort of fiction idealizes real life. Stories have been a favorite escape for centuries, and this current wave of Amish fiction doubles that: we readers (and writers!) are escaping into fictional homes and towns and families where we feel far more comfortable than we really would, were we to become Amish! It wouldn’t take us long to miss our cars and and our dishwashers—especially those, in families where eight to ten kids is the norm!
But in our books, we also see Amish characters tackling the ongoing chores of canning, cooking, cleaning, barn raising (and barn mucking!) as a family and as a community. Nobody goes it alone. Nobody competes to be the best, or to stand out and be noticed. Everyone encourages and supports their neighbors—and best of all, these characters are expected to admit when they’ve done wrong, and the community and their families are expected to forgive them.
Does this always happen willingly and joyfully in real life for the Amish? Of course not! They struggle with their personal desires, just as we do. But, as with technology, they are expected to take responsibility for their actions. They believe that in the end, God will be holding them accountable for the way they lived their lives on Earth—even as they believe that God’s will controls every little thing that befalls them in this life.
So, what’s the appeal of Amish fiction? Simplicity, yes. But also the accountability, honesty, cheerfulness, and sense of family/community of the characters we’ve come to love. We wouldn’t want to live their lives, but we love to put ourselves in their places as we read stories about them!