The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt

17057089Nonfiction — print. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. 500 pgs. Library copy.

Known for their simple clothing, plain lifestyle, and horse and buggy mode of transportation, the Amish are one of the more well-known and idolized religious groups in the United States. This book explores the diversity and evolving identities within this distinctive American ethnic community, its transformation over time into separate groups with different levels of adherence to rejecting the modern world, and the group’s geographic expansion.

Amish people do not proselytize and few converts remain with the group for the rest of their lives yet their numbers in North America have grown from a small community of some 6,000 people in the early 1900s to more than 275,000 today. The largest populations are found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, with additional communities in twenty-seven other states and Ontario, and mainstream Americans have gone from seeing the Amish as “backward bumpkins” to people with laudable ethically standards.

This is easily the most comprehensive account of the Amish and their history in publication. Enormous amount of attention is paid to the differences between the various Amish groups going beyond the derivations in dress and buggy adornments to discuss how each group makes their own decisions about appropriate levels of interactions with the outside world, including the use of personal vehicles for long distance traveling and electric-powered milk coolers. This level of specification might bore some readers, but I found this discussion and its relationship to how many young adults choose to stay with the Amish to be the most interesting aspect of the book and the greatest contribution to my understanding of this religious group. Contrary to what I presumed, the more restrictive and separate a group is from mainstream America, the more likely their children are to stay with the group.

I also appreciated the straight-forward manner in which Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, and Nolt tackle the common misconception about Rumspringa as a period where Amish teenagers are allowed to experience the world without consequences. As one Amish woman is quoted in the book, “What group of parents that love their children would say, `Go out and do whatever you want and decide whether you want to be like we raised you’?”. Instead, the authors’ explain how the main focus of Rumspringa is to date and find a husband or wife with whom to have children and raise in the Amish community and the imagination of Rumspringa as period of personal freedom is actually an attachment of American values to the Amish, who value community over the individual.

Very informative and comprehensive read. I know more than a few Amish romance authors who could benefit from reading this book.

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