Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Tracing the Backstory of Amish Romance Novels

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Tracing the Backstory of Amish Romance Novels

Article excerpt

Abstract: The enormous popularity of Amish romance fiction in the twenty-first century has stunned many observers. Amish romance novels are now appearing at the rate of more than one per week, with some eighty titles published during 2012. Although many observers trace the advent of the subgenre to Beverly Lewis's 1997 The Shunning the first Amish romance novel, Helen Reimensnyder Martin's Sob ma: A Story of the Amish, appeared more than a century ago. This essay traces the history of Amish romance fiction from its inception in 1905 to the early part of the twenty-first century, and examines the way that three identifying strands--rural particularism, chaste heterosexual romance, and evangelical piety--have joined to create a singular subgenre within inspirational fiction.

Browse the inspirational fiction section of any bookstore, and you will likely find cover after cover of comely young women wearing dresses with capes and often pensive expressions. Like Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, the woman on the front of the typical Amish romance novel both issues from and presides over the landscape. Instead of a wreath of barley, she wears a prayer covering shaped like a heart, with gossamer strings attached. She hovers just above sun-drenched fields, in dreamy guardianship of the buggies and silos and covered bridges below her, or else she stands front stage, with the rural scene unfurling behind her. Occasionally a male figure lingers in the background, his face obscured by a hat; but more often the Amish maiden is alone in her pastoral reverie, gaze averted and thoughts inscrutable.

Demure as they may appear, Amish protagonists are annexing ever more real estate on the virtual and actual shelves of booksellers. Many Christian bookstores now sell more than forty different Amish fiction titles; my local store in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, had sixty-six at last count, and one I visited in Ohio boasted eighty-three. The Barnes & Noble near my home in central Pennsylvania had ninety-two. (1) These numbers do not include "Amishesque" novels inspirational romances about Mennonites, Shakers, Quakers, Puritans, Moravians, the Amana Colonies, and others--that have been spawned by the flourishing Amish genre.

No matter the exact ecclesial affiliation of the model on the front cover, women with head coverings are the clear matriarchs of Christian fiction. Their dominance on the inspirational Christian fiction shelf is just one indicator that a marketing vice president for a Christian publishing house had it right when he told Newsweek: "You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales." (2)

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If you track the growth of Amish romance novels during the first decade of the third millennium on a line graph, you get a meandering, mostly flat line for the first six years. Then a smattering of new Amish titles appears, two or three or four a year, courtesy mostly of Beverly Lewis and a few outliers. But then the line suddenly juts upward: from five new Amish novels in 2006 to fourteen in 2007. From then on, breathless descriptors like "exponential growth" would not be out of order. After a brief dip in 2008, the publication of Amish romance novels rises steeply: twenty-six new titles in 2009; forty-five in 2010; sixty-three in 2011; and eighty in 2012. Thus, in both 2011 and 2012, Amish romance novels were appearing on the market at the rate of more than one per week. (3)

Many observers assume that Beverly Lewis's The Shunning, published by Bethany House in 1997, was the first Amish romance novel. The series that contains The Shunning tells the story of Katie Lapp, who strains against her Amish community's rules, discovers she is adopted, and embarks on a journey of self-discovery, eventually ending up Mennonite. But The Shunning was not the progenitor of the subgenre; rather, it descends from a long line of such fiction that contributed the genetic material for the contemporary Amish romance. …

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