In an engaging personal memoir, Mackall, an Ohio-based writer and professor of English, describes the close-knit relationship he has cultivated over more than a decade with a neighboring Amish family. This is neither an exposé nor an outsider's fanciful romanticization of the Amish. By focusing on the loves and losses of one large Amish clan, Mackall breathes life into a complex group often idealized or caricatured. He refers, for example, not to "the Amish" writ large, but instead to "the Swartzentruber Amish I know," describing in some detail the tremendous differences between the Swartzentrubers, by far the most traditional sect, and the Old Order, New Order, Beachy and other Amish groups. The Swartzentrubers not only eschew electricity but also padded or upholstered chairs, souped-up buggies, indoor plumbing, the tradition of rumspringa (a running-around period for some Amish teens) and—perhaps most important for this narrative—contact with "the English." Mackall's is the first book to venture behind-the-scenes of this most conservative Amish group. At times Mackall is critical of the Swartzentruber way of life (such as when an eight-year-old girl dies in a buggy accident because the sect rejects safety measures for buggies), but it is a deeply respectful account that never veers toward sensationalism. (June)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amishby Joe Mackall
Joe Mackall has lived surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish community of Ashland County, Ohio, for over sixteen years. They are the most traditional and insular of all the Amish sects: the Swartzentrubers live without gas, electricity, or indoor plumbing; without lights on their buggies or cushioned chairs in their homes; and without rumspringa, the recently popularized "running-around time" that some Amish sects allow their sixteen-year-olds.
Over the years, Mackall has developed a steady relationship with the Shetler family (Samuel and Mary, their nine children, and their extended family). Plain Secrets tells the Shetlers' story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuel's nephew Jonas finally rejects the strictures of the Amish way of life for good, after two failed attempts to leave, and his bright young daughter reaches the end of school for Amish children: the eighth grade. But Plain Secrets is also the story of the unusual friendship between Samuel and Joe. Samuel is quietly bemused—and, one suspects, secretly delighted—at Joe's ignorance of crops and planting, carpentry and cattle. He knows Joe is planning to write a book about the family, and yet he allows him a glimpse of the tensions inside this intensely private community.
These and other stories from the life of the family reveal the larger questions posed by the Amish way of life. If the continued existence of the Amish in the midst of modern society asks us to consider the appeal of traditional, highly restrictive, and gendered religious communities, it also asks how we romanticize or condemn these communities—and why. Mackall's attempt to parse these questions—to write as honestly as possible about what he has seen of Amish life—tests his relationship with Samuel and reveals the limits of a friendship between "English" and Amish.
"Mackall does the job beautifully, painting an intimate portrait of the family that leaves the reader feeling humbled by the common thread that's woven into all of us." —Sarah English, Cleveland Magazine
"Wonderful and enlightening . . . a loving portrait, warts and all, of an often misunderstood people."—Booklist, starred review
"An engaging personal memoir . . . neither an exposé nor an outsider's fanciful romanticization of the Amish. By focusing on the loves and losses of one large Amish clan, Mackall breathes life into a complex group often idealized or caricatured."—Publishers Weekly
"In simple but elegant prose that matches the values of his subject, Joe Mackall takes us deep into the Amish community. He neither romanticizes nor condemns an alternate way of living, but provides stunning insight through the generosity and compassion of his own heart."—Chris Offutt, author of The Same River Twice and Kentucky Straight
"Joe Mackall's Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish meets the biggest challenge of a book such as this by living up to his subtitle: Mackall is both outside and among in equal measure, and it's the most difficult terrain to occupy. Plain Secrets vibrates in that in-betweenness, in ways that only songs or poems usually can, and it does so in prose that's as clear as water. It’s built the way the Amish build their barns—everything here is plumb and level." —Diana Hume George, author of The Lonely Other: A Woman Watching America
"Joe Mackall's patience, empathy, and dogged curiosity illuminate this fine, fascinating study of an elusive culture. Plain Secrets is a provocative, humbling, and soulful book."—Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy
"Plain Secrets is a moving exploration of a little-known world and friendship across a cultural divide."—Boston GlobeOff the Shelf column
"Mackall explores this paradox with rare honesty and insight . . . Another strength of the book is that while maintaining a personal narrative voice, Mackall folds in a succinct and engaging history of the Anabaptist religious tradition and the polity of the Amish church. This added context greatly enhances the more personal stories."—Boston Globe
"Mackall's writing is an honest and refreshing change from the customary saccharin scribbling about the Noble Amish Man. Despite, or perhaps because of, Mackall's refusal to perch the Amish on a pedestal, he manages to convey a deep respect for the people."—Lancaster New Era
"Mackall describes the details of family, farming and church life with sympathy, accuracy and good will… His particularistic description of one family is a welcome addition to what had often been a sociological literature." —Christian Century
". . . he writes with a forthright precision."—Akron Beacon Journal
"The book points to a difficult truth: A religious community is bound to be freed. Mackall explores this paradox with rare honesty and insight . . . [and] achieves what he promises."—Tom Montgomery-Fate, Boston Globe
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Meet the Author
Joe Mackall is author of The Last Street Before Cleveland. A professor of English and journalism at Ashland University, he is coeditor of the journal River Teeth and has written for NPR's Morning Edition, the Washington Post, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other publications. He lives near Cleveland, Ohio.
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What stands out for me the most in this book is the frank honesty used by the author in describing the details of his unique friendship with his Swartzentruber Amish neighbors. While much, but certainly not all, of the commentary on the Swartzentruber culture is favorable it is not sugar coated or romanticized, and the criticisms when made are constructive and respectful. I also appreciated how the author is clear in presenting the differences between Amish sects when telling his story, constantly reminding the reader (many of us who tend to lump the Amish together) that the Amish come in many stripes. An all around great read that I would recommend to anyone looking for a true story of a strong friendship with an uncommon twist.
I was so intrigued with this book it was excellent!! The Amish are in my opinion a very intresting group and I Love reading about them.
Answered many questions about the Amish I have asked myself.
One of the better books on one of the many sects of the amish.