Goodreads: Thrill of the Chaste
Valerie Weaver-Zercher examines the appeal of Amish romance novels. Who writes them? Who read them? And why are they suddenly so popular?
Let me begin by admitting that I have never read an Amish romance fiction. Nor have I read much Christian fiction, aside from the 1967 Christy by Catherine Marshall. Still, I recognize that the Amish have an imaginative hold over many in the U.S. and, when I learned about Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s book exploring the appeal of Amish romance fiction, I knew I wanted to read it. What is it, after all, that has lead so many evangelical Christian writers and readers to immerse themselves in the lives of the Amish? And how accurate are these books, anyway? And what do the Amish themselves think of this proliferation of Amish literature? Weaver-Zercher sets out to answer these questions with a down-to-earth writing style that will draw in even readers who do not normally indulge in literary criticism.
There is a lot to unpack in the history of the Amish romance novel, but Weaver-Zercher makes a heroic effort to trace the rise of the form from its roots to the present day, explaining the ways in which these novels have represented the Amish and perhaps why. Interestingly, while some early novels depicted the Amish as the ignorant, subjugated Other, a series of people to be condemned and avoided, modern-day novels do not always depict the Amish as glowingly or respectfully as one might think.
In fact, since most Amish romance novels are written by evangelical Christian white women for evangelical Christian white women, some of these books suggest that the Amish are oppressed by their rules and tradition, are not saved, and are in need of an evangelical “born again” moment. Weaver-Zercher even quotes a popular author of Amish romance who stated that the Amish “are not Christians.” Weaver-Zercher’s assessment is that these books allow evangelical authors to reject their fundamentalist roots (represented usually by the “oppressive” Ordnung and a mean bishop) and celebrate a more individualistic experience and understanding of Christianity.
In addition to trying to create sympathetic heroines by making them more evangelical them Amish, many authors also try to navigate a desire for the simple life (represented by farm land and buggies) with their desire for modernity by depicting their heroines as leaving their communities for more progressive Amish communities or for the Mennonites. These types of narratives indicate how authors and readers are drawn to an idea of Amish-ness that seems idyllic, slower-paced, free from the trouble of modern life. At the same time, however, they may see the Amish as too strict and unrealistic, in need of bending the rules a little to be truly admirable or relatable.
After tracing the history of the Amish romance and its current manifestations, Weaver-Zercher explores reader response to the books. Her findings are perhaps not surprising. A large number of readers enjoy the books because they are “clean,” they reinforce and reaffirm their religious values in a hostile world, and they allow readers to create relationships with each other as they discuss the personal and religious journeys of the heroines. The response here is very interesting to me, as the women Weaver-Zercher interviews clearly enjoy Amish romance and find it valuable, even though many people might dismiss the romance novel as poorly-written, trite, and frivolous. The women, however, feel affirmed in seeing their own experiences (troubled marriages, miscarriages, etc.) reflected back to them. These books, then, often seem to deal with “women’s issues” that more respected books, authors, and genres may overlook.
But what do the Amish think of these books? is the question Weaver-Zercher said she got the most while doing her research. It is admittedly a question I always wanted to know the answer to. Weaver-Zercher’s interviews suggest that the Amish have varying opinions, just like everyone else. Some love reading them. Some like seeing characters “like them” (even though Weaver-Zercher notes only one Amish author writing Amish fiction). Some think the books are trash. And some worry that their community will be destroyed by books that depict their rules and religion as overbearing and oppressive. The books celebrate a personal conversion experience that the Amish, as a more community-oriented religion, would probably reject as too individualistic and emotional. At least one bishop Weaver-Zercher spoke to noted that he fear the books would cause Amish readers to drift away from what makes them Amish.
With all this covered, that leaves the questions of how accurately Amish romance novels depict the Amish, and whether non-Amish should get to write them, and profit off the Amish. Weaver-Zercher is pretty generous here. She notes some major areas writers get wrong, like suggesting the bishop is in charge of everyone and tells them what to do (the Ordnung is more community-based) or writing that the Amish trade young men around communities to keep the gene pool diverse (they don’t). Otherwise, however, she seems to accept that writers of Amish fiction mean well, even when they get things wrong. And she wonders if fiction writers really need to be 100% accurate. Do readers care if they sprinkle fake Pennsylvania Dutch words in among the dialogue? Or are readers looking for something besides cultural accuracy?
Weaver-Zercher also leaves it kind of open-ended as to whether non-Amish should get to write Amish fiction. Most writers try to get some “credibility” by claiming everything from having Amish or Mennonite relatives to living in Lancaster county, but the end result is that they probably cannot fully depict what it means to be Amish having never experienced it. Weaver-Zercher, however, does not judge the writers or the readers too harshly, instead focusing on what Amish fiction means to them.
Thrill of the Chaste is a well-researched book, delving into the historical, cultural, and religious roots of the Amish romance novel to try to discover the reason for its extraordinary popularity. The book is written with a light touch, and many personal stories from Weaver-Zercher, making it accessible, even to those may normally shy away from non-fiction as being too difficult or dry.