Love, Amish Style
Miller, Lisa, Newsweek
Byline: Lisa Miller
These novels raise questions about modern life.
Why can't we all be a little more like the Amish? This question lies at the heart of the Amish romance novels, churned out now with such regularity--and with such -success--that publishers are beginning to worry that the market is saturated. "We're seeing Amish fiction splintering into everything imaginable: Shakers, Puritans," says Steve Oates, marketing vice president for Bethany House, the Christian publisher whose author Beverly Lewis is the biggest name in Amish fiction. "We call it 'bonnet fiction.' You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales." The Thorn, Lewis's most recent book, has sold 280,000 copies since its publication in September. Lewis herself has sold more than 13 million books in all.
Modeled on the bodice rippers that generations of women have read for escape, Amish romances follow familiar plotlines. An innocent girl, torn between a hot, dangerous boy and a cute, upstanding one, has to make a choice. Disapproving parents, difficult siblings, nosy neighbors--not to mention the warring impulses of lust and restraint--need to be wrestled with and vanquished. But in the bonnet books, passion is beside the point. The aspiration here, for the Amish heroine (and, by extension, her readers), is inner peace, a stable and cohesive community, and obedient children--the result of a right relationship with God.
Sex, if it occurs at all, happens offstage. "We'll wait till our wedding day to lip-kiss," says the blond (and bland) beau of Rose Ann Kauffman near the end of The Thorn. The hokey vernacular--who even says "lip-kiss"?--makes a smooch off-limits, a strange ritual performed by foreigners on special occasions.
Mainstream coverage of the "bonnet ripper" phenomenon has been mostly snarky, for who isn't titillated by a chance to imagine what's beneath those sober aprons? (And let's face it: the answer to that question given by Kelly McGillis in the 1985 movie Witness helped make her a star.) But these books hold a profound appeal. In a world where little girls dress like tarts for Halloween and all children seem to imagine that a Wii for Christmas is a God-given right, a description of kids playing quietly with handmade rag dolls during a three-hour church service would rouse any parent's envy. …