Get Ready to Chase the Amish Dream

In case you hadn’t noticed, a long line of people stands ready to tell you Amish stories. They include:

  • Producers of Amish-themed reality TV shows.
Scene from current season of Breaking Amish on TLC.

Scene from current season of Breaking Amish on TLC.

  • Tourist-venue operators.
Signs to Amish tourist sites in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Signs to Amish tourist sites in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

  • Writers of Amish fiction.
Beverly Lewis, one of the top-selling authors of Amish fiction.

Beverly Lewis, one of the top-selling authors of Amish fiction.

  • Writers of Amish nonfiction.
Mindy Starns Clark is author of A Pocket Guide to Amish Life.

Mindy Starns Clark, author of A Pocket Guide to Amish Life.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with non-Amish people telling Amish stories. In fact, I’ve done it myself, in a book that I wrote about Amish-themed fiction (Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels). And we at Herald Press tell Amish stories as well, through series like Ellie’s People: An Amish Family Saga by Mary Christner Borntrager, a series of young-adult Amish novels that we are re-releasing, and Return to Northkill, a series of historical Amish novels by Ervin R. Stutzman.

ellie  Rebecca(outlines).indd JacobsChoice

Those of us who have told Amish stories have a variety of motives. Herald Press produces Amish-related books because we see it as part of our mission as a Mennonite publisher. We believe that we have a responsibility to produce books that correct misconceptions and offer authentic portrayals of the Amish, a community that is close to us historically and theologically (and sometimes genealogically!). But even those of us who are motivated by goodwill and careful about our representational work can’t escape the reality that we’re telling someone else’s story and that we’re telling it from our own angle.

Isn’t it time that Amish writers have a chance to tell their own stories?

A new series from Herald Press gives Amish and other plain Anabaptist writers the chance to do just that. Plainspoken: Real-Life Stories of Amish and Mennonites, which features books on daily life and faith written by Amish and other plain Anabaptist writers, launches this coming Tuesday with Old Order Amish writer Loren Beachy’s Chasing the Amish Dream: My Life as a Young Amish Bachelor.

I am thrilled that this series is kicking off with the work of such a talented and hilarious writer. People might pick up Loren’s book because it’s written by an Amish writer, but they’ll keep reading because it is some of the best humor writing around. Loren, a beloved columnist for the Goshen News, is a schoolteacher and an auctioneer, and his chapters teem with the pranks and foibles and routines of the folks in his Old Order Amish community in northern Indiana. When I was editing Loren’s writing, I’d often read parts to my sons and husband because, well, I couldn’t not read them out loud. And if the cover makes you at all curious—why is that man chasing that buggy?—let me just say that there are actually two accounts of two different buggy chases in the book. You won’t want to miss either one.

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New York Times–bestselling author Cindy Woodsmall says readers won’t want to miss any of these firsthand accounts of Amish life. “Anyone with an interest in the Amish or in humor will love this unusual rendering by a young and very spirited Amish man,” Woodsmall says. And Philip Gulley, author of the Harmony and Hope series, says this about the book: “For years I have harbored a secret desire to join the Amish. Now I can chase my Amish dream through this wonderful book by Loren Beachy. This treasure of a book has taken me into their homes, and them into my heart.” And here’s one more endorsement, this one from Lorilee Craker, bestselling author of Money Secrets of the Amish: “Loren Beachy is such a charmer! Reading through these delightful stories of life as an Amish bachelor, I felt like I was with Loren at an old-fashioned box social, a farm auction, and all the places and spaces he occupies in his plain community. Jump in the buggy with Loren Beachy and you’ll take to this book like a rabbit to a carrot patch.”

I told Lorilee this, and I can tell you: Loren is as charming in person as he is in writing. He stopped by my house in central Pennsylvania a few months ago, on the way to an auction, to hand off the final manuscript. My sons loved meeting him in person, and he did some of his “auction calling” for them. He almost had us bidding on a pair of sneakers sitting in the middle of the living room.

The Amish have been writing about their lives for a long time. In periodicals like Die Botschaft and The Budget, Amish writers across Canada and the United States connect with each other, and Amish printing presses and publishing houses bring books by Amish authors to Amish readers. But such magazines and books are read mostly by other Amish and Mennonites and rarely by the larger reading public. What is new about the Plainspoken series is that it makes Amish first-person writing accessible to readers outside Anabaptist circles.

We all know that interest in all things Amish is rampant right now, and Loren knows it too. I think he’s a little ambivalent. Given his faith’s emphasis on humility, he’s not comfortable being in the limelight, and we at Herald Press are respecting his wishes in a variety of ways: no author photo, of course, and marketing plans tailored to the parameters of what he can offer as an Amish author. But Loren still has hopes for his first book and its potential to reach readers. He tells me that his three wishes for readers of this book are: “that they will be inspired by how joyful the Christian life can be; that they will realize how absurdly normal the Amish are; and that they will relate to how much we can enjoy a good joke.”

Chasing the Amish Dream launches on Tuesday. Keep your eyes open for the next two books in the Plainspoken series. In Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to Old Order, which will release in February 2015, Old Order Amish writer Marlene C. Miller tells her rare story of growing up non-Amish and joining the Amish as an adult. Then in May 2015, Hutterite writer Linda Maendel will invite readers into her experiences as a lifelong Hutterite living in a colony on the plains of Manitoba in Hutterite Diaries: Life in My Prairie Community.

So you can tune in to the latest season of Breaking Amish, if you’d like, or visit the Amish-themed tourist attraction nearest you. Then again, you could pick up a copy of Loren’s book and listen to an Amish writer tell his own story for a change.

You can order Chasing the Amish Dream for $9.75 U.S. until the end of the day on Monday, October 20. 

ValerieWeaverZercherValerie Weaver-Zercher is managing editor of Herald Press trade books.

Authors Don’t Just Write. They Listen.

I have been privileged to attend several Herald Press author functions in the last week. Each event has reminded me of the compelling conversations that occur between authors and readers.

We often think of the relationship between authors and readers as a one-way street: the author “speaks” through the book, and the reader “listens.” End of story. But the conversations between authors and readers that I’ve watched recently remind me that authors listen to their readers, and listen deeply. They listen to their readers’ hurts, and longings, and the things that bring them joy. Good authors know their readers, and they care what their readers experience in the pages of their books. They use what they learn from readers as they write subsequent books. Most authors also know that they don’t own the communication that happens in the reading process. They know that readers “talk back” to writers in a variety of ways: sometimes in their own heads, and sometimes—like at book launches and book signings—in person.

I wasn’t able to attend the successful launch of Jacob’s Choice at Gospel Bookstore in Berlin, Ohio, in early February (see editorial director Amy Gingerich’s post about that event and author Ervin Stutzman’s post about writing the book). Hundreds of people attended the three-hour event, and although that meant a long line sometimes formed, Ervin took the time to listen to what each of his readers wanted to say. Ervin has also recently done book talks in Virginia and Florida.

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Ervin R. Stutzman signs copies of his book at the Gospel Bookstore in Berlin, Ohio, in February.

Then last week I got to watch authors and readers interact at two events. On Tuesday Shirley Hershey Showalter and Saloma Miller Furlong spoke about their lives and their books to a crowd of more than two hundred people at the Mount Joy Mennonite Church in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. Hosted by the Milanof-Schock Public Library, Shirley and Saloma’s presentation, entitled “Coverings: Amish and Mennonite Stories,” focused on their stories of wearing—and eventually ceasing to wear—prayer coverings. Shirley tells her story of growing up Plain in Lancaster County in her book Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, and Saloma writes about growing up Amish and leaving as a young adult in her book Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds.

The night before, Shirley had spoken to another audience of two hundred people at an event sponsored by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Shirley that evening, and I spoke with some people who attended the program on Tuesday night who had attended on Monday night as well.

It is true: an important part of what Ervin and Shirley and Saloma do when they speak to audiences and autograph books is, well, talk. They stand up front and describe their writing process, and their personal histories, and their faith, and they answer questions from the audience.

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Saloma Miller Furlong and Shirley Hershey Showalter share their stories at a library-sponsored event in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.

But here’s the thing: our authors don’t just talk. They listen. They attend to the type of questions that their readers are asking, notice what they’re curious about, and observe topics that readers bring up again and again. They listen carefully to readers, and they store away what they learn as they ponder what book they might want to write next.

In fact, one of the best parts of lurking around Saloma and Shirley’s book-signing on Tuesday night was watching them listen to their readers. People who attended the event and came through the line to have their books signed were eager to tell Saloma and Shirley not only how much they enjoyed their books but also to relate to them stories from their own lives. One woman reminded Shirley of a letter she had sent to her recounting experiences from her own youth that she saw reflected in Shirley’s book.

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A reader talks with Shirley after the library event.

And I watched as Shirley and Saloma listened—intently—to their readers, thus giving readers the same gift of attention that their readers offer to them.

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Saloma listens to a reader during a book-signing.

“Herald Press is more than just a publisher for authors,” Saloma told me after the event. “We actually become part of a community. I am honored and grateful to be part of that.” I like that idea: that Herald Press is creating a type of community, for both our authors and our readers. It means that we take our readers seriously, and listen to them carefully. We know that as publishers and authors, we’re only one part of the reading event.

The idea that regular human authors are good listeners reminds me that the Author of our faith is, too. The Word-became-flesh doesn’t just talk at us and expect us to listen—although God has done that throughout history and continues to do so. But one of the amazing truths of our faith is that God does more than create things. The Author also listens to us.

ValerieWeaverZercher

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is managing editor of Herald Press trade books.

Looking for a way to listen to—or talk with—our authors? Check out Saloma’s speaking schedule.

Here are some upcoming events for Shirley.
Kansas City, Kansas:

  • “Why Your Own Life Story Matters and Five Tips for How to Tell It,” South Branch of Kansas City (Kansas) Public Library, Friday, March 7, 3 p.m.
  • Blush will also be available for sale at Mennonite Health Assembly meeting March 6-8 in Kansas City at the Marriott downtown hotel; Shirley Showalter will be available from 5-6 p.m. at a book table at the conference on March 7.

Newton, Kansas:

  • “Finding Gold in Our Attics and Basements: How to Find, Use and Share the Artifacts that Prompt Our Stories,” book talk and signing, Kauffman Museum, North Newton, organized by Rachel Pannabecker, director of the museum, Sunday, March 9, 3:30 p.m.
  • Chapel at Bethel College, Newton, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now: Five Tips for Making the Most of Your College Investment,” Monday, March 10, 11 a.m., organized through Nathan Bartel.
  • Faith and Life Bookstore, book signing, Monday, March 10, 3-5 p.m.
  • “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Memoir,” Schowalter Villa, Monday, March 10, 7 p.m., open to the community

Ervin will be appearing at the following events:

  • Faith and Life Bookstore, Newton, KS on March 19, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
  • Center Amish Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, KS on March 20, 7:00 p.m.
  • Kidron-Bethel Village, North Newton, KS on March 21, 8:00 p.m.

Why I wrote Jacob’s Choice

Guest post by Ervin Stutzman, author of the novel, Jacob’s Choice.

There’s hardly a day that went by in the last two years without my musing on Jacob Hochstetler’s story of faith which I portray in Jacob’s Choice. Each day, my mind transported me back more than 250 years in time to witness the immense clash of empires in Penn’s Woods, a conflict which forever altered the social and religious landscape of America.

Historical Marker of Indian attack on Hochstetler familyOn some days, I strolled the foothills of the Blue Mountains where Hochstetler and his family carved a homestead out of the rich forest surrounding the Northkill Creek. On other days, I marched with Hochstetler and his captors through hundreds of miles of dense forest.

Northkill CreekForest and Northkill Creek

Or I smelled the smoke that rose from the cooking fires at the Seneca village of Buckaloons, where Hochstetler was kept as a captive.

Confluence of Brokenstraw Creek and Allegheny River at BuckaloonsConfluence of Brokenstraw Creek and Allegheny River at Buckaloons.

Although Hochstetler’s story is well-known among his more knowledgeable descendants, it deserves a much wider telling. It begs to inspire not only those who share his nonresistant convictions, but also a broader audience that embraces violence as a way to do God’s will.

The founding narratives of our nation beg for significant nuancing and reinterpretation. That’s what James Juhnke and Carol Hunter hoped to accomplish with The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History. I envisioned Jacob’s Choice as a way to show rather than tell how the Amish eschewed violence in the face of war. The publishers and editors at Herald Press heartily embraced this vision, and have done their best to make that possible.

During the surge of interest in Anabaptist origins in the mid-1900s, Mennonite scholars translated dozens of 16th century Anabaptist texts and wrote extensively about that period. Some wrote historical novels about that era. Most recently, Myron Augsburger wrote The Fugitive, the story of Anabaptist reformer Menno Simons. Why so few stories from the 1700s and 1800s? The paucity of historical novels could give the impression that not many faithful Anabaptists lived during that era. Jacob’s Choice was written to help fill that void.

Frankly, I hope to ride the current wave of interest in Amish novels, as explained in Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher. Like Weaver-Zercher, I live with considerable ambivalence about the portrayal of the Amish in popular media, so I’ve done my best to write something that tells the story of my Amish forebears with respect and as much accuracy as I could achieve through careful research.

JacobsChoiceAlthough I’m enthralled by Hochstetler’s story, the narrative in Jacob’s Choice draws its ultimate meaning from the larger story of God at work in the world. As in the stories of scripture, the ultimate hero of my book is God, whose visage in made visible to us in the face of Jesus Christ. That story has the power to bring us to our knees in repentance and readiness—like Hochstetler— to make the hard choice to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

(Photos in this blog, except for below, are courtesy of Ervin Stutzman and appear in the hardcover Expanded Edition of Jacob’s Choice along with maps, genealogy, extensive end notes, and more.)

A news release and purchasing information is here.

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Ervin Stutzman, author and executive director of Mennonite Church USA, signing books at Gospel Book Store, Berlin, Ohio.