Wednesday, May 05, 2010

bookclubbing in April (2 of 2)

Second selection for my online bookclub...

Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman

Rumspringa is a book that Tom Shactman wrote following his work on the documentary Devil's Playground. I haven't seen the documentary yet, but it seems like Rumspringa has a much broader focus.

I definitely think that Schachtman strays a bit too far from the subject of rumspringa. I found the book fascinating and I'm glad that through it I was able to learn more about Amish culture in general, but it wasn't really what I expected. To some extent, though, maybe he really does stay on topic. The subtitle is "to be or not to be Amish" and all of the things he writes about (church governance, rates of abuse, etc) may actually play into an individual's decision of whether or not to formally join the church.

To some extent Rumspringa was eye-opening. What really surprised me was how many of the Amish work outside the community (and I don't mean in the tourist shops/restaurants), people who stay in the church but work in factories. I knew that some of them had to work outside the home/farm, but I guess I expected that they'd be working in places that operated under the restrictions the must follow at home. I suppose this ties into the way that non-Amish Americans idealize the Amish. I think non-Amish, who don't live in areas with Amish, think that the Amish are much more isolated than they actually are.

The other thing I wasn't really aware of was that there were different rules for people living in different areas/districts. I guess I assumed that all Old Order would follow the same set of rules, and the less strict orders would each have their own consistent set of rules. I can only imagine how frustrating it would be to know that your cousin who lives in the next county can use some tool that you yourself were reprimanded for owning.

I found Schachtman's narrative style problematic. Though he makes great use of personal stories, they are not told chronologically or all at one. Rumspringa is organized topically and bits and pieces of the stories are used when they help illustrate a point the author is trying to make about the topic at hand. Every time Schachtman wanted to discuss one of the characters again he had to remind us who that person was. Because we only saw bits and pieces of these individuals' lives spread out over the various chapters I found it hard to really connect with any one of them. And I imagine that if you read the book over the course of a longish period of time you would have quite a bit of difficulty remembering individual characters. I also found myself wanting to skim when Schachtman spent too much time on the non-personal story parts.

One final comment: One of the ladies in my other book club has read quite a lot about the Amish. I talked to her a bit about Amish and the way they are portrayed in fiction and I found something that she said very interesting. She reads quite a bit of Christian fiction and one of the things that she said was that in many of the books published by the main Christian publishers the protagonist becomes involved with a Mennonite (female character meets and Mennonite man then lives happily ever after with him within a Mennonite community). She thinks that the Christian publishers, who will use Amish settings because they draw in readers, see the Amish faith as not exactly the brand of Christianity that they want to promote to their readers and that the Mennonite faith is a more acceptable compromise. Interesting.

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