In the publishing world, Amish romance novels have long been referred to as “bonnet rippers.” It’s an irresistible play on words, although not an entirely accurate one: Very little gets ripped in these books, least of all bonnets – or, more precisely, prayer kapps. And certainly not in passion. In Emma Miller’s The Christmas Courtship, Phoebe almost rips open a letter from her mother at one point, but it concerns her young son, whom she hasn’t seen in ages, so the histrionics are understandable.
When Canada’s romance behemoth, Harlequin, started publishing Amish romance in 2010, some believed the genre, already a phenomenon in the United States for decades, had already reached its peak. That turned out not to be the case. Amish romance has since become a mainstay for Harlequin, which publishes it as a subgenre within its “Love Inspired” Christian romance series, among others. Harlequin couldn’t provide sales figures, but Farah Mullick, the publisher’s senior director of global series marketing, confirmed that Amish romance sells in the millions (and particularly well in the U.S. market), and that the company continues “to publish titles within this category based on consumer demand and sales appetite for more.”
It’s an appetite bordering on voracious. Over the past five years, Harlequin has tripled its output of Amish-themed novels. Searching “Amish” on their website yields more than twelve thousand hits; books with titles such as The Amish Midwife’s Courtship, Jedidiah’s Bride, Second Chance Amish Bride, Amish Triplets for Christmas and The Amish Teacher’s Dilemma. There are miniseries such as Amish Witness Protection, in which Englischers – the Amish word for outsiders – seek refuge from evildoers among the Amish (also the memorable theme of the 1985 Harrison Ford film Witness). “As a computer expert, leading a life off the grid isn’t easy for Celeste” reads the blurb for Amish Hideout, “But will staying in Jonathan’s childhood home save her … and convince them a future together is worth fighting for?” Starting in spring, 2021, Harlequin plans to publish novels with longer, more complex stories about Amish characters to “provide a broader scope for authors to explore more multifaceted stories about Amish life.”
All their category romance titles come with the Harlequin “promise.” This is essentially a trigger warning, but for pleasure, alerting readers to a book’s tropes and eventual outcome. A key promise across all series – whether in Amish-themed novels or the new LGBTQ+ “Carina Adores” romance line – is the guarantee of a happy ending, with “happy” being relative to the desires of individual characters.
Within romance’s already highly prescribed narrative world, where plots are predictable and just details change, Amish romance authors have an even more limited palette to work from. You could say their challenge isn’t to think outside the box, trope-wise, but to rearrange things inside that box while avoiding splinters from all the hand-planed maple strapping.
Fifty Shades of Grey, in the context of the genre, could only be taken as family laundry drying on a line. Sex isn’t mentioned, let alone done: A prolonged gaze or the entwining of fingers is about as heavy as the petting ever gets. In the books I read, kisses were mostly administered to women’s foreheads, and in a reassuring, paternal fashion. “I admire your spiritual and emotional strength,” delivered sans exclamation point, is your typical throes-of-passion utterance. When Micah, in An Unlikely Amish Romance, boldly strokes Susannah’s hair, the act’s potentially volcanic eroticism is doused by the fact that Susannah’s once presumably luxuriant tresses have been reduced to a bob: a result of the chemo she received for ovarian cancer.
Simile and metaphor, indicators, perhaps, of imaginative excess, are largely absent. There are summer days aplenty in these books, yet no one ever seems to get compared to one. Still, when Phoebe returns to the property of her cruel stepfather, Edom, to take back her son, we take references to his “dilapidated” and “unkempt” outbuildings; the peeling paint, broken windows and rotting clapboard of his farmhouse, for what they’re clearly intended to be: outward manifestations of Edom’s dastardly soul.
Generally, though, these novels present Amish life as bucolic, devout and full of the simple pleasures of harness-repair, quilt-making and benign animal husbandry. The italicized Pennsylvania Deitsch (Gotte, doktor, onkel, mamm) that peppers their pages – if “pepper” isn’t too spicy a verb – even lends them a certain polyglot thrill. Plots are straightforward. A common scenario involves someone being sent to live with family members in a different town to atone for some moral transgression.
This frequently leads to younger, more “modern” characters butting heads, albeit gently, with their conservative elders. When Micah takes a selfie at a barn-raising with his smartphone and it winds up on the cover of the local paper, his daddi (grandpa) responds by angrily crushing the phone with his boot. Inevitable interactions with the Englischer world are mostly kept minimal, and the characters don’t seem to yearn for the temptations – technological, sartorial – this presents. At one point, Joshua goes into a Starbucks to get hot chocolate for everyone; whether he’s conversant in the latter’s lingua franca (grande, venti, etc.), however, is left to our imagination. When characters do cross taboo lines, there’s usually a justification for it. An Amish girl tapping her foot to music on a car radio is deemed acceptable because a) it’s someone else’s car; b) he chose the music; and c) the music is Christian.
Some of the authors do seem to push against the genre’s confines in discreet ways. Humour is one. An Unlikely Amish Match, for instance, starts with Micah – considered a “bad boy” because he wears a ballcap and sneakers and is rumoured to have used intoxicants – pulling into town in a pickup with oversized wheels, music blasting. “Who would want to purchase such big tires? … They look as if they’d fit a tractor,” his eventual love interest, Susannah, says to her friend Deborah, proving that sincerity can be more deflating (sorry) than sarcasm. Author Vannetta Chapman even manages to work a bit of diversity into her tale: It turns out Susannah’s pen-pal, Jayla, her hospital roommate when she was being treated for cancer, is African-American.
And there’s an unassuming feminism to Joshua’s response when Phoebe admits, in The Christmas Courtship, that her child was born out of wedlock (she was engaged to the father, but he was killed in a silo accident). He’s angry – not at Phoebe’s “sin,” but at her stepfather (he of the rotting clapboard), who, unlike her congregation, still refuses to forgive her. (Another sign of Joshua’s wokeness: he helps with the laundry).
Although the Amish’s self-sufficient hermeticism is clearly part of the allure for readers, other insular religious groups don’t seem to have inspired similar genres, at least not on the same scale. There doesn’t seem to be such things as Hasidic Jewish romance, for instance. (Clicking “Jewish” on Harlequin’s website yields less than 100 results.) An obvious explanation is that the Amish have dibs on all the props: horse-drawn buggies, bonnets, milking stools and freshly baked bread are inherently romantic; Scientology’s toilet-scrubbing and e-meters, not so much.
None of the Amish romance authors in Harlequin’s current stable (the punning opportunities here are regretfully endless) are Amish, although many are Christian or evangelical. Some have lived around the Amish, such as Emma Miller, who also taught in an Amish one-room schoolhouse. The vast majority are also American, an exception being Alberta-based Patricia Johns, who recently published her first Amish-themed title with Harlequin, The Nanny’s Amish Family. (Harlequin doesn’t provide its authors with a guide to writing Amish life; publicity and events manager Lisa Wray told me that accuracy is the writer’s responsibility.) And while there’s evidence that some Amish do read Amish romance, the books cater more to a non-Amish, denomination-curious Christian readership.
That these writers have so far been immune to the accusations of cultural appropriation lately levelled against authors in other parts of the literary world, most prominently and recently with Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s #MeToo-themed My Dark Vanessa, is no surprise, given that most conservative Amish don’t read novels, let alone romance. Of course, even if they did find their portrayal in these books objectionable, they’d be unlikely, given the technology-eschewing aspect of their faith, to take to Twitter to complain about it. And since there are virtually no Amish authors, it’s hard to make the claim that Amish voices are getting drowned out by non-Amish ones.
But it’s not difficult to see how Amish romance offers a balm for these fraught times. Who among us hasn’t, in the midst of another dispiriting news cycle, considered pulverizing our devices and moving to the country to make quilts and molasses? When Micah eventually replaces his smartphone (he needs it for his new Amish taxi business) it’s with an internet-free flip phone. If there’s temptation to be found in these novels, especially by the less chaste amongst us, then that, surely, is it.
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