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Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette
Wanda Brunstetter, author of novels based on Amish life, signed copies of her latest book at Blue Gate Farm in Shipshewana. A play based on that work is being performed as a musical at the Blue Gate theater.

Readers attracted to simpler world

Novels purport to portray Amish life

Lewis

Horses drawing black buggies clip-clopped down the street, and girls in long blue dresses and headscarves or bonnets pedaled their bicycles into a local grocery’s parking lot. There, suspender-wearing boys with bowl-shorn hair helped shoppers load groceries into their cars.

It was just another Saturday morning in Shipshewana in LaGrange County, the center of northeast Indiana’s bustling Amish tourism industry.

And, on the second floor of the Amish-themed Blue Gate restaurant and theater, Wanda Brunstetter, signing copies of her latest novel, “The Half-Stitched Amish Quilting Club,” was sitting at the center of her readership.

“A lot of my readers live near Amish communities,” says Brunstetter between autograph requests. “They’re curious about the lifestyle.”

At 60-something, Brunstetter has written 60 books, mostly Amish-themed fiction, and sold more than 6 million copies in the past 15 years. And that makes this petite redheaded grandmother with the quiet presence of a school librarian a major player in a literary trend.

Move over bodice-ripping romances. Today, among many female readers, what’s hot is bonnet strings.

Or, as one wag for Publishers Weekly put it earlier this year: “Try to spot inspirational fiction trends this spring, and you could get run over by an Amish buggy.”

In recent years, three of the major practitioners of Amish- fiction – Brunstetter, the similarly prolific Beverly Lewis and relative newcomer Cindy Woodsmall – have all landed on The New York Times’ best-seller list.

Amish-themed books routinely make the Top 10 lists of best-selling Christian fiction – Brunstetter had two on that list earlier this month. And in recent weeks, both Brunstetter and Lewis have toured northeast Indiana, drawing large groups of middle-aged and young adult female fans to signings at bookstores and public libraries.

“People are really getting into these books,” says Sherry Ungemacher of Harlan, sitting on a bench at Glenbrook Square, waiting for Lewis to arrive for a Sept. 20 Barnes & Noble signing of her latest work, “The Bridesmaid.”

The novel about delayed love features on its cover a demure, blond woman in a white prayer cap and apron over a purple dress sitting, eyes downcast, against autumn-hued scenery with a barn in the distance.

Ungemacher, 47, who says she lives near Amish families and had Amish friends as a child, says she likes the feeling of living in the simpler world Lewis paints in her books.

“Hers are very accurate about what they (the Amish) believe and how they are so close,” Ungemacher says.

“Her books – it’s almost like a mystery, and there’s romance in it, and then she puts a twist in it. I think I have that book figured out, and then there’s that twist.”

Janice Showers of Fort Wayne, a retired General Electric factory worker in line for Lewis’ autograph, says when she buys Amish fiction, she doesn’t buy just one book.

“I buy the whole series,” she says, “because sometimes you miss things. They’re all connected.”

Showers says she appreciates the wholesome quality of the romances and the inspirational messages.

“It’s Christian-based,” she says of Lewis’ writing. “A person can be led to Christ through her books, just reading them. The word is there. If a person is searching, it’s there.”

Lewis, who says she based her first book, 1997’s “The Shunning,” on her grandmother’s departure from the Old Order Mennonites, grew up in Lancaster, Pa., home to the state’s largest Amish population. Her father, an Assemblies of God pastor, was often sought out by the Amish.

“When word got out he was a scholar of the Greek New Testament, they would invite us to dinner. From the time I was 7 or 8, I was eating at Amish tables and being with them in their homes,” she says.

Brunstetter, whose latest work was made into a musical playing at Blue Gate through Dec. 8, says she came to her knowledge of the Amish through marrying a Mennonite – her husband, Richard, a photographer who specializes in Amish and Mennonite subject matter.

She says she has relatives among Pennsylvania’s Plain People and has cultivated friendships with families in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. “I also found there were Anabaptists (the broader group to which the Amish belong) in my own family,” she says.

Still, Ervin Beck, a retired Goshen College English professor knowledgeable about Amish fiction, says many of the burgeoning number of writers have scant connection to the Amish.

“With one exception that I know of, they aren’t being written by insiders in most cases,” Beck says, adding that because few people know what the Amish are like, they can become a blank canvas for writers and readers.

“I think one thing that is missing in these romance novels is (authentic) religious faith,” he says.

“The Amish are very pious. … You would never know from reading these books that the Amish believe in Jesus or in trying to live a Christ-like life. Religious issues aren’t discussed, but religious rules are. But people don’t want to read about religion; they want to read about Amish culture.”

Beck says Amish-themed fiction isn’t new – it goes back to the 1905 publication of “Sabina: A Story of the Amish” by Helen Reimensnyder Martin, the daughter of a Lutheran minister brought up in Lancaster County, Pa.

But he says titles were sporadic until the last decade of the 20th century, and then the books really took off in the 2000s.

“In 2000, there was only one Amish fiction book published. By 2012, there were 80 new titles, or more than one a week,” Beck says. There are now more than a dozen well-known authors.

The books mostly are sold in Amish attractions, Christian bookstores and online, although some are now being sold in general bookstores and picked up by mainstream publishers, he says.

But do the Amish read the books?

“A lot of them do,” says Lewis. “A lot of them aren’t supposed to read them, but they tell me they’re reading them under their covers. It depends on their bishop.”

Brunstetter also says she knows of many Amish readers. She says her books have been sold at gatherings in Amish homes, and she knows of one bishop in Indiana who encourages his flock to read her work “because of the positive portrayal” of Amish life.

But it’s primarily non-Amish who have fueled the trend.

Lewis says the popularity of the genre may have peaked a couple of years ago. But her own sales “are still strong,” she says.

“People are saying the sense of belonging (in Amish society) is very drawing to them,” Lewis says. “In this hectic society of technology, they crave the peace.

Readers, she adds, “do love the intimacy I provide – getting a glimpse inside a somewhat cloistered community that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

rsalter@jg.net

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