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Meet the hottest new women’s fiction subgenre: the Amish romance novel. Seeing as “the church has traditionally viewed fiction as distracting and deceitful,” the Wall Street Journal reports, Amish romances are largely written by non-Amish women, for non-Amish women. These so-called “bonnet books,” essentially, are romance novels for modern women who want to live vicariously through an Amish character’s modest romantic transgression against her religious community. So while the books routinely defy Amish sensibilities in plot—-they generally involve “an Amish character who falls for an outsider”—-they remain extremely sexually conservative. In one popular book, Cindy Woodsmall‘s “When the Heart Cries,” the forbidden couple “actually kiss a couple of times in 326 pages.”
Woodsmall’s peculiar writing technique reveals just how strange the world of non-Amish Amish fiction can be. Woodsmall researches her books with the Flauds, a family of Pennsylvania Amish farmers. Woodsmall visits the family twice yearly to generate story ideas and ask the Flauds for plot advice. Woodsmall then “mails her manuscripts to Mrs. Flaud, who, as a favor, checks them for mistakes.” Mrs. Flaud’s contributions to the books range from fact-checking—-“characters riding bicycles” when “most Pennsylvania Amish ride scooters”—-to suggestions for “adding or rewriting scenes.” Because Woodsmall’s books are about breaking Amish tradition from a non-Amish perspective, the Flauds aren’t always helpful:
During a recent visit, Ms. Woodsmall sat on a swing outside the Flauds’ 133-year-old farmhouse and peppered them with questions for her sequel to “The Hope of Refuge.”
“This is one of those questions I hate to ask,” said Ms. Woodsmall. One of her characters, a schoolteacher, wants to modernize some aspects of Amish education. “What are some things she might want to change?” Ms. Woodsmall asked.
The Flauds’ 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, piped up. “The bathrooms,” she said, explaining that many students at her school wanted to replace outhouses with indoor plumbing.
Some of her inquiries drew a blank. The Flauds couldn’t come up with Amish expressions for the word “quirky” or the phrase “women’s rights.”
Though the books are mainly read by “Englishers”—-the non-Amish outsiders who become embroiled in the book’s forbidden love affairs—-some Amish women have taken to devouring the books “under the covers.” Others, apparently, read them for informational purposes. Beth Graybill, director of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, keeps up on bonnet books enough to debunk their inaccurate plot lines. “Outside authors exaggerate the wild activities during Rumspringa, the period when Amish teenagers experiment with technology and worldly distractions, from about the age of 16 until they decide to join the church or leave the community, Ms. Graybill said. Buggy accidents, and romances between Amish youngsters and outsiders, are also far less common than the books suggest, she said.”
I can understand why an Amish woman might be interested to read about a woman, like her, who catches a couple of hot smooching sessions with an exotic hunk one fateful summer. Why 250 non-Amish people recently gathered in Pennsylvania Amish country to “[snap] Ms. Woodsmall’s photo with cellphone cameras,” however, escapes me. I suppose I just don’t get hot reading a romanticized account of a community where women’s rights don’t exist. Beyond the genre’s unsettling conservative bent, the Amish romance novel strikes me as a more offensive version of the Regency romance. They both rely on sentimental ideals of antiquated societies, except that the Amish are still alive, kicking—-and on-hand to inform the novelists that their buggies aren’t crash-prone and their youth actually choose to remain within the community most of the time. Plus, I’m pretty sure that Woodsmall is taking advantage of Mrs. Flaud for her free Amish editing services. Wise up, Mrs. Flaud. You could be the first Amish Amish romance writer. Think about it.
Want a taste of the Amish romance novel’s stolen kisses, tousled curls, and baby-making hotness? Here are some excerpts from novels by Woodsmall and another New York Times-bestselling Amish romance writer, Beverly Lewis.
Beverly Lewis‘ “A Cousin’s Promise“:
Wayne gave Loraine’s fingers a gentle squeeze. “This will be our last chance for an outing with our single friends before we become an old married couple, so we’d better enjoy every moment,” he whispered in her ear.
He looked at her so sweetly she wanted to tousle his thick auburn curls, the way she sometimes did when they were alone.
In just a little over a month, she and Wayne would get married, and then she could tousle his hair to her heart’s content. By this time next year, they might even have a baby, and their lives would take a new direction — one that wouldn’t include weekend trips to amusement parks. A baby would mean changing dirty diapers, getting up in the middle of the night for feedings, and so many new, exciting things. Loraine could hardly wait to make a home and raise a family with Wayne. It would be a dream come true.
She leaned her head against Wayne’s shoulder and let her eyelids close. She felt safe and secure when she was with Wayne — enjoying his company and happy to know she’d soon be his wife.
Cindy Woodsmall‘s “When the Heart Cries“:
Some days the desire to break from her family’s confinements sneaked up on her. There was a life out there—one that had elbowroom—and it called to her. She took another long look at her homestead before traipsing onward. Paul would be at the end of her one-mile jaunt. Joy quickened her pace. Her journey passed rapidly as she listened to birds singing their morning songs and counted fence posts.
As she topped the hill, a baritone voice sang an unfamiliar tune. The melody was coming from the barn. She headed for the cattle gate at the back of the pastureland that was lined by the dirt road. Beyond the barn sat Paul’s grandmother’s house, and past that was the paved road used by the English in their cars.
Paul used the cars of the English. Hannah’s lips curved into a smile. More accurately, he drove a rattletrap of an old truck. Even though his order of Mennonites was very conservative, much more so than many of the other Mennonite groups, they didn’t hesitate to use electricity and vehicles. Still, his sect believed in cape dresses and prayer Kapps for the women. Surely there was nothing wrong with her caring for Paul since the Amish didn’t consider his order as being an Englischer or fancy.
As Hannah opened the cattle gate, Paul appeared in the double-wide doorway to the barn. His head was hatless, a condition frowned upon by her bishop, revealing hair the color of ripe hay glistening under the sun. His blue eyes showed up in Hannah’s dreams regularly.
Cindy Woodsmall‘s “When the Morning Comes”:
Hannah gripped the railing as the train squealed and moaned, coming to a halt. Her body ached from the absence of the life she’d carried inside her only days ago. When the conductor opened the door to the outside, a cold blast of night air stole her breath. He stepped off the train with her bag in hand and turned to help her onto the platform.
“It’s bad out here tonight.” The man glanced across the empty parking lot, then passed her the traveling bag. It weighed little in spite of carrying all she owned–all she’d begin this new life with. “You got somebody meeting you, young lady?”
Wishing she had a decent answer to that question, Hannah studied her surroundings. The old depot was dark and deserted. Not one sign of life anywhere, except on the train that was about to depart. She glanced the length of the train in both directions. There wasn’t another soul getting off.
The conductor’s face wrinkled with concern. “The building stays locked 24/7. It’s no longer an operating depot, but we drop people off here anyway. When somebody lands in Alliance, they better have made plans.”
A few hundred feet to her right stood a small blue sign with a white outline of a phone on it. “I’ve got plans,” she whispered, hoping he wouldn’t ask any other questions.
BONUS: the covers are adorned with the faces of “Amish” babes:
And “Amish” hunks: