Chasing the Bonnet

The Premise and Popularity of Writing Amish Women

A few years ago, when conducting dissertation research on Amish women in business, I visited a gift shop and noticed a rack of romance novels with pictures of Amish women on the cover. I asked the Amish business owner, “Do you sell a lot of these?”

“Yes,” she said, “the tourists like them.”

“Do Amish buy them?”

“Well,” she said, “a lot of people read them.” Later, when I was giving an earlier version of this essay at a public conference at Elizabethtown, an Amish grandfather told me, “We would have some of these books in our homes.”

The genre is called “bonnet fiction,” described by one blogger as “Harlequin meets Little House on the Prairie, except CHRISTIAN. All sanitized so as not to possibly offend any Weaker Brethren and/or the Church Lady” (http://evangelicalinthewilderness.blogspot. com/2009/09/ christian-heroes-and-dantes-shit-list.html).

In fact, a lot of people do read bonnet fiction. Three bonnet-romance writers – Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter and Cindy Woodsmall – are New York Times best-selling authors. Other writers in this genre routinely make the best-selling lists of Christian booksellers. For example, 10 of the top 25 Christian fiction books for 2009 are Amish romances, according to ChristianBooks.com, one of three major Christian book retailers (http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/cms_content?page=1212089&sp=55020).

And it is a rapidly growing sector. An April 27, 2009, Time magazine article noted that “romance fiction, of which Amish-themed novels command a growing share, generates nearly $1.4 billion in sales each year, and that number is rising” (http://www.time. com/time/magazine/ article/0,9171,1891759,00.html#ixzz0tLsJXwjN). According to an ABC/AP news story published last July, although net sales for Christian retailers were down almost 11 percent in 2008, Amish fiction is “the undisputed industry leader” (http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/ wireStory?id=8093291). The Amish Hearts web site, a joint effort by Christian authors Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller, Barbara Cameron and Amy Clipston, notes that between the four of them they will release some 20 Amish romance novels within the next two years http://amishhearts.com/2010/03/11/labels. aspx). The appeal of these books is obviously great.

To this subject I bring my own disciplinary bias. Trained as an American Studies scholar and analyst of contemporary pop culture, I understand that this genre is important to study because of its very popularity. The question I ask of bonnet-romance novels is not, Are these great works of fiction? but Why are they popular and what can we learn from these works? Following an overview of some of the more popular practitioners of this genre, I will address this question.

Interestingly, the social location of most of the Amish romance writers is quite similar. While difficult to keep track of (since new writers join the genre each month!), with one exception the authors are evangelical white women of middle age—which is also the demographic for readers of Amish romance fiction. Most include some Christian credentials: some self-identify as a minister’s daughter (e.g., Beverly Lewis) or minister’s wife (e.g., Wanda Brunstetter) or Sunday School teacher (e.g., Kim Vogel Sawyer). Others list mission projects (Cindy Woodsmall) or include a statement of Christian identity, e.g., “Gayle [Roper] is a convinced believer in Jesus as the Son of God and our Savior.”

A male author of Amish romance fiction who grew up in the Amish faith, Jerry Eicher is the exception to the demographic described above. A part-time writer who runs a construction business in Virginia, Eicher’s web site describes him as “an Amish insider.” His Adam’s County Trilogy (the Rebecca series), set in southwestern Ohio, and his Hannah Series, set in northern Indiana and Montana, are published by Harvest House Publishers, who also publish Amish romance fiction by Mary Ellis and B. J. Hoff and Amish mystery fiction by Mindy Starns Clark—which is another growing genre, alongside P. L. Gaus’s Ohio Amish mysteries, Barbara Workinger’s Amish Country mystery series, and Tamar Myers’ Pennsylvania Dutch mysteries with recipes.

The two writers of Amish romance fiction who have been working in this genre the longest and have stayed almost entirely within it, genuinely view their writing as evangelistic outreach and include on their web sites self-conscious statements about writing to strengthen Christian faith. Beverly Lewis wrote: “My greatest desire is to craft a truly inspirational story that spurs readers on to further heights of victorious Christian living and ministry for the glory of God.” Wanda Brunstetter – less well-known but almost as prolific as Lewis with her Daughters of Lancaster County series, Brides of Lancaster County series, Sisters of Holmes County series, and two more recent Amish novels – wrote on her web site:

“My goal is to help readers of my books know God on a more personal level, and to offer them encouragement and hope during difficult times.” Christian writers who have more recently turned to Amish fiction have tended to emphasize their writing credentials more than their faith motivations on their web sites, e.g., Suzanne Woods Fisher and Amy Cliptson, who note their writing awards and experience in lieu of their Christian testimony.

In fact, all Amish romance authors write out of, and to, a particular evangelical Christian subculture. This can lead to some odd depictions of Amish faith. Amish protagonists agonize about finding God's will for their lives. In many, Jesus comes to them personally through sign or vision. For example, in Cindy Woodsmall’s The Hope of Refuge, when Cara is stranded during a late-night lightning storm and flood, she is saved by a vision of Jesus. In Lewis’ series, Amish Country Crossroads, Rachel surrenders her will through the blood and at the cross of Jesus. According to reporter Ann Rodgers, who studied Amish fiction for a 2009 story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the biggest criticism noted by her sources was that characters in these novels think and talk too much like standard evangelicals, whose understanding of God’s will tends to be individualistic rather than communal (http://www.getreligion.org/?p=16641).

Regardless, virtually all of these writers appeal to a level of authenticity to legitimize their depictions of Amish life, which may or may not be completely accurate. For example, Lewis’ book,The Shunning,which she says was based loosely on her grandmother, was widely criticized for its inaccurate depiction of shunning. Of her Plain heritage, Lewis says that her maternal grandmother, Ada Ranck Buckwalter, was raised “horse-and-buggy Mennonite, which is just a step away from Amish,” and that she “left her Old Order Mennonite upbringing to marry a Bible College student.” Lewis describes herself as “born in the heart of Amish country” and reports having gone to school with Plain people and having had Old Order neighbors. Similarly, Brunstetter reports on her web site, “Ever since I married my husband, who grew up in a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania, I have had an interest in the Plain People. Four of my sister-in-laws are Mennonite, and I now have several Mennonite and Amish friends, as well.” Thus both Lewis and Brunstetter claim Lancaster County connections.

In a similar vein, Mary Ellis claims Old Order German Baptist Brethren relatives, “known as Dunkards, on my mother's side” as her stamp of authenticity. On her web site Cindy Woodsmall invokes “Luann, a Plain Mennonite girl” that she grew up with and with whom she “bonded in true friendship” and who served as a touchstone to her imagination. Marta Perry cites “a lifetime spent in rural Pennsylvania and her own Pennsylvania Dutch roots” as impetus and legitimacy for her Amish writing. Mary Ellis also claims proximity as the source of her authenticity: “I grew up close to the eastern Ohio Amish community of Geauga County, where my parents often took me to farmers’ markets and woodworking fairs. My husband and I now live within the largest population of Amish in the country—a four-county area in central Ohio. We love to take weekend getaways to purchase farm produce and other goodies, stay with Amish families in bed and breakfasts, attend country auctions and enjoy the simpler way of life.” In these ways, writers of Amish romance fiction position themselves as credible insiders, thus seeking to mitigate the charge of factual errors and to gain authenticity--and hence popularity and sales.

To be fair, many of these writers do try, in fact, to get their facts right in relation to the Amish characters they are depicting. For example, Lewis’s more recent books include suggestions for further reading, referencing Don Kraybill’s Amish research, and Cindy Woodsmall has told reporters of her friendship with an Old Order Amish farming family in Lancaster County who proofread and edit her manuscripts for factual mistakes or errors of detail. Moreover, as Beverly Lewis once pointed out in conversation with me about the subplot of her series, “The Courtship of Nellie Fisher”—which includes the unlikely scenario of an Amish family giving their new baby to an infertile Amish couple—what could happen (and make a good story) is different from what has or has not actually happened in an Amish community.

Lizzie and Stephen

Were we to look for genuine authenticity in the genre, however, we could turn to the works of Old Order Amish writer, Linda Byler, of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. An outspoken scribe for the weekly Amish newspaper, Die Botschaft, with a circulation of 11,000 nationwide, Byler turned to writing after the bankruptcy of her husband’s business. Facing huge debt, she put to use her most marketable skill, writing. As she told me, “I couldn’t make the kind of money we needed cleaning houses.” Byler decided to write about her growing-up years “because I always liked the Laura Ingalls [Wilder] books." Her first book Lizzie was published in 2003. Byler authored and self-published seven books in her Buggy Spoke series, loosely based on her childhood from age five to early married life. Her writing has been an important source of family income.

Described to me by non-Amish fans as “the Amish Beverly Lewis,” Byler is something of a celebrity within the Amish community, widely read, with car- and bus-loads of Amish readers dropping in to visit and buy her books. Byler still composes by hand, writing thoughts by pencil in composition books. Her writing is candid, humorous and true to her life as an Old Order Amish woman in more isolated Pennsylvania communities—though not without some internal censoring. She told a public gathering of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society last spring that she writes “with an Amish bishop sitting on her shoulder” as her guide. Adding, “It’s a bit unhandy.”

Running Around

Vignettes from Byler’s later books have recently been combined and republished by Good Books as Running Around (and Such): Lizzie Searches for Love series, Book 1.The cover testimonial includes “A novel by an Old Order Amish writer, based on true experiences.” Two more books in the series are projected. Good Books is marketing the book at national bookstore chains as well as at Wal-Mart, where a number of readers found it and have been blogging about it.

Byler told a newspaper reporter last year that “she hasn't read any of the romances written by outsiders,” although Beverly Lewis has visited her and Barbara Cameron claims her as a friend. The reporter concluded, “So far she has no imitators among the Amish.”http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09228/991202-44.stm#ixzz0tLYFnIBG
Interestingly, Linda Byler’s writing may challenge some of the stereotypical, better-behaved Amish heroines that populate the books of other Amish romance writers and that readers may have been conditioned to expect. As one blogger wrote on 5-15-10:

I finished the book last night. Thoroughly enjoyed a view of a very different Amish main character. Lizzie is 14 to 16 through this book and likes things in a most un-Amish way—food, going fast in the buggy, etc. She doesn't like being overweight, most chores, babies, sewing and so on. A good study of teenaged angst, I guess. … She's got a view from the "inside" we can all enjoy. Nice recipes in this book, too!!!http://www.amishliving.com/ forum/topics/hello-ladies-i-found another?xg_source=activity

Another blogger on May 16, 2010, described Byler’s book as “fun and quirky. It does not portray the Amish as just pure goody-goods. Lizzie is young, hard headed and totally different than most girls portrayed in Amish based books. I look forward to reading what becomes of her.“ http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A56NG2JILN803/ ref=cm_cr_dp_pdp

That the actual character in an Amish memoir is seen as so different from standard portrayals of Amish protagonists suggests some of the stereotypic and exaggerated themes in much Amish romance fiction. As mentioned earlier, plot lines may include a preoccupation with personal salvation or heartfelt piety (often hidden) of the Amish heroine, which, if known, could create problems for her in the more staid Amish community but, in some plots, leads to a softening of the stern bishop’s heart. In some books—Lewis’s Annie’s People series and Woodsmall’s Sisters of the Quilt series, for example —this tension is resolved by having the main character be helped by or marry a conservative Mennonite, whose faith is portrayed as more evangelically-minded than that of the Amish. Also, in keeping with readers’ expectations, farming is the main livelihood for the Amish in most books’ peaceful rural settings—although that does not reflect current Amish reality in the country’s biggest settlements in northern Indiana, Holmes County, Ohio, and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Regarding plot, action in many Amish romances revolves around four main themes, which, although they may occur in actual Amish life, are far less common than the novels would lead one to believe.

The first of these is that of outsiders becoming Amish, an extremely rare phenomenon, according to researcher Stephen Scott of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. Serious impediments, such as learning the Pennsylvania German dialect and giving up technology, are glossed over by the outsider’s love for an Amish protagonist or attraction to the bucolic rural life. This trope is so common that Shannon Marchese, senior editor for fiction at Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group, describes much of the Amish fiction market as retelling the same romantic story of the Outsider and the Plain person” and hopes for more plot variety in the future. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20100308/42306-christian-fiction-editors-talk-trends-bonnets-multiply-goodbye-chicklit-.html

This first theme includes both “forbidden romances” (e.g., in Sarah’s Garden by Kelly Long the protagonist falls in love with a non-Amish vet who lives in the farm beside hers in the Allegheny Mountains) as well as outsiders healed by Amish life (e.g., in Time to Love in the Quilters of Lancaster County series by Barbara Cameron a war correspondent seeks peace and solace in her grandmother’s Amish community). The best-known example of the latter motif, as its title suggests, was the 2007 Lifetime made-for-TV-movie of Lewis’s novel, The Redemption of Sarah Cain. This idea of Amish life as redemptive is simplistic. As one blogger wrote recently, “I was hoping the 'Englisher' world wouldn't be presented as something Kade should leave to find happiness and a deep personal relationship with the Lord. We can't all be Amish.” But in much of this fiction, that is exactly what happens. http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Promise-Daughters-No/dp/1595547207/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1279046527&sr=1-1

A second theme is that of tragic accidents. These can be buggy accidents (e.g. A Merry Heart by Brunstetter and The Crossing by Lewis), can/van accidents (e.g.The Waiting by Suzanne Woods Fisher and A Cousin’s Prayer by Brunsettter), fires (e.g.Forgiven by Shelley Shepard Gray) or accidental drowning (The Parting by Lewis), to name a few. Fathers, husbands and boyfriends often die tragically; their widows, fiancées or girlfriends are always young, beautiful and certain they can never find love again. Abandonment also occurs in these books, in which case the cheating spouse ultimately dies tragically, in order to sidestep the problem of divorce for the remaining spouse. Tragedies do occur in Amish life, of course, but not with the frequency found in these novels.

A third theme has to do with adoption, often in secret and revealed later in life. In Lewis’s The Shunning, a baby is adopted by and raised Amish; as an adult who leaves the community she comes to understand why she “never felt Amish” and “always loved fancy things.” In Bishop’s Daughter and Storekeeper’s Daughter by Brunstetter, a kidnapped Amish baby is inextricably drawn back to the Amish community as an adult and discovers his true roots. Secret Identity by Gayle Roper and Plain Paradise by Beth Wiseman also deal with adoption and hidden identity.

Finally, a fourth plot—common since the documentary Devil’s Playground(2002) depicted the excesses of Amish rumspringe—has to do with indiscretions during the Amish adolescent “running-around” period. In Lewis’s Abram’s Daughters series, not one but two characters have rumspringes in which they get pregnant by English boyfriends, have pregnancies which they manage to hide from everyone in the family, secretly give birth out of wedlock, and have the baby adopted by other Amish families. In Marta Perry’s Anna’s Return the protagonist returns with a baby born out of wedlock during her rumspringe, which is almost unheard of among the Amish, since unwed parents usually marry. In a bit of a twist, in Amy Clipston’s A Gift of Grace the Amish heroine gains custody of her modern teenage nieces after the death of her sister, who left during rumspringe.

These exaggerated plot lines lend dramatic tension to what are essentially G-rated romances, often marketed with the word “wholesome.” Last year’s ABC news article compared bonnet fiction to Victorian novels in that just a brief moment of holding hands can mean ecstasy, or unleash a flood of inner turmoil (http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/ story?id=7676659&page=2). Like other Christian historical fiction, Amish fiction set in earlier time periods is “a great way to have a nice clean story when a certain set of values didn't seem out of place," said Steve Oates, vice president of sales and marketing for Bethany House publishing (http://www.thefreelibrary.com/From+Amish+to+ vampires,+Christian+fiction+expands-a01611929401). Or as one blogger described the genre, “As far as romance novels go, you’re likely to get more sparks by rubbing two Amish quilts together. The novels feature chaste love, family values and biblical virtue with a decidedly Protestant mind frame. . . . These novels aren’t working out a character’s sexual identity, marital infidelities or teenage sexting and binge drinking. I get that, I totally do; and if I can’t live the agrarian life, reading about it is the next best thing.” http://comethatmidnight.wordpress.com/tag/orthodox-converts/

Much of the appeal of bonnet fiction comes, in fact, from reading about Amish farm country with the comforting perspective of happy endings where God is always in control. For example, a fan on Amazon called a new Amish romance by Shelley Shepard Gray, “another wonderful comfort read.”http://www.amazon.com/Winters-Awakening-Seasons-Sugarcreek-Book/dp/0061852228/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid= 1279046061&sr=1-1 If one can set aside the far-fetched plots and occasional lifestyle inaccuracies in bonnet fiction, such books are profoundly reassuring. In Amish romance fiction, hardships become spiritual growth opportunities as God sets things right in the end.

Feminist literary criticism offers us another related framework to understand bonnet fiction. Literary critics Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins use the category “sentimental fiction” to describe a mid-19thcentury genre of writing by, about and primarily directed to women readers, an analysis I extend to bonnet fiction. The story line in sentimental fiction follows a young female protagonist who suffers but comes to know herself and develop inner strength through hardship. These novels usually end in marriage, as does most Amish romance fiction. Rather than trivialize this genre, Baym and Tompkins argue for recognizing the validity of this form of literature as an important attempt to organize culture from a woman’s point of view.

Reading the Romance

The popularity of Amish romance writing among women corresponds with the reader-response research described by Janet Radway in her book, Reading the Romance:Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Radway conducted interviews in a midwestern town with readers of Harlequin romances. She found that these women read for escape, for education about places that are foreign to them, and for pleasure (i.e., reading as doing something for themselves). As in Radway’s research, three of four Christian fiction readers are women, according to research published in an AP/ABC news article last year, and they read for many of the same reasons that Radway articulated (http://abcnews.go. com/Entertainment/wireStory?id=8093291). Bonnet fiction, according to this same article, is “a surprise hit with evangelical women attracted by a simpler time, curiosity about cloistered communities and admiration for the strong, traditional faith of the Amish.”

A recent blog, typical of many, articulates the appeal of bonnet fiction:

This is an easy read that goes really fast and is very educational about other cultures. It does not have a complicated plot, nor does it go on ad nauseum in regards to details, etc. It is relaxing and a very enjoyable book. Left me with a happy feeling.http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/ANIABU01HUQWE/ ref=cm_cr_pr_pdp

According to Barbara Scott, senior acquisitions editor for fiction at Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House, “Romance in any form dominates sales, and since ‘bonnet’ fiction by its nature is a clean read, it remains quite popular in Christian markets.” http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20100308/42306-christian-fiction-editors-talk-trends-bonnets-multiply-goodbye-chicklit-.html

Finally, the question of what accounts for the premise and popularity of Amish fiction needs to take into account nostalgia and virtual tourism—what I call “tourism of the imagination.” While Lancaster heads the list of communities where Amish tourism is prime revenue—a $1.5 billion industry, bringing 8 million tourists annually, according to the local tourist bureau—Amish tourism is also significant in northern Indiana and northeast Ohio. Lancaster gift shops sell Amish romance novels, particularly those novels set in Lancaster County, alongside other souvenirs for purchase by tourists; presumably the same is true in Amish tourist areas of Indiana and Ohio. In fact, Barnes & Noble's religion-book buyer, Jane Love, confirms that sales of bonnet fiction are particularly strong in Amish areas of the country. Either the Amish themselves are buying them, or the tourists are. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1891759,00. html#ixzz0tLsmpUnt
Last year, author Cindy Woodsmall described the appeal of bonnet fiction to readers: “[The books] are rooted in faith, family and community," she said. "And people want that. They want to see it and feel it and understand it, especially in the downturn on the economy.” Amish romance writers capitalize on these positive values associated with the Amish and with readers’ desire to visit Amish Country, at least virtually, if not in actual fact. http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=7676659&page=2

The “Amish Fiction” page of ChristianBook.com evokes the nostalgia associated with Amish tourism: “Warm bread, freshly baked shoofly pies, lush rolling hills, and handmade quilts are hallmarks of the Amish way of life. Browse our new Amish Store to gain a greater appreciation of the Plain people. Our new Amish store brings you to one place to find all you're looking for in Amish fiction by some of your favorite authors . . ."


In a variety of ways, bonnet fiction writers seek to capitalize on Amish “tourism of the imagination” and on nostalgia for a bygone, simpler way of life. Web sites of Marta Perry and Beverly Lewis include Pennsylvania Dutch recipes, Cindy Woodsmall’s web site hosts a quilt auction, Suzanne Woods Fisher has a weekly radio program, “Amish Wisdom” (http://toginet.com/shows/amishwisdom). Most of the author web sites feature Amish Country photos, sayings or blogs extolling Amish virtues or lessons from Plain People.

A Time magazine article last spring noted increasing demand for romance fiction, which constitutes $1.4 billion in book sales each year, “of which Amish-themed novels command a growing share http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/ 0,9171,1891759,00.html#ixzz0tbHzUxK6. Barnes & Noble book buyer Jane Love said Amish novels currently account for 15 of the chain's top 100 religious fiction titles.

In March 2010 Publisher’s Weekly printed an article, “Christian Fiction Editors Talk Trends: Bonnets Multiply; Goodbye, ChickLit.” In it, an editor from Zondervan, referring to Christian Booksellers of America, the largest Christian book retailer, noted that “35% of the February CBA list was “bonnet fiction. I don't see the market slowing down soon.” http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20100308/42306-christian- fiction-editors-talk-trends-bonnets-multiply-goodbye-chicklit-.html

On her web site, romance author Beth Wiseman posts the question of whether she will continue to write Amish novels. Her avaricious reply? “The success of the Amish sub-genre suggests that I will be writing them for a long time.” Given the genre’s still-rising popularity, it is likely that Christian romance authors like Wiseman, latecomers to a lucrative market trend, will continue chasing the bonnet for some time to come.

About the Author

Beth Graybill

Beth Graybill (Goshen College ‘80) lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and attends Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster. She earned a PhD in American Studies from the University of Maryland in 2009. Now self-employed, she was director of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical society from 2005-2010 and is the former chair of the historical committee of Mennonite Church U.S.A. In 2006 she was a research fellow at the Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (PA) College. She has published extensively in scholarly journals and books on the historical experience of Mennonite and Amish women. She was one of the major organizers of the first conference on Mennonite and Amish women held at Millersville (PA) University in 1995.