“A Whisper of Satin”: The Infant Dress Leitmotif

in Beverly Lewis's "Heritage of Lancaster County" Series

Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis

Although best-selling inspirational novelist Beverly Lewis is understandably credited with "g[iving] birth to" the lucrative Amish fiction genre in 1997 with the release of her inaugural adult novel The Shunning (Gorski, par. 9), Lewis was not the first author to write about horse-and-buggy Plain folk, nor was she the first to pen romance novels about them.

As Steven Nolt points out, "The dawning of the twentieth century brought the prospect of new relationships between modernity and a people [the Amish] who stood apart from its promises and goals" (257), as illustrated by the publication of a book called The Masquerading of Margaret (1908) by social progressive Cora Gottschalk Welty. In this romantic comedy, against the backdrop of an Amish farm, Welty advances her social gospel values of expanding public welfare and condemning gambling. Additionally, over the first three decades of the twentieth century, Lancaster-born author Helen Reimensnyder Martin became well known for her "less than flattering" (Weaver-Zercher 18) representations of her Pennsylvania German neighbors in satires like Tillie: A Mennonite Maid (1904) and Barnabetta (1914). Other notable early Anabaptist love stories include Anna Balmer Myers' Amanda (1921), Joseph Yoder's Rosanna of the Amish (1940), and "Carolyn Keene's" Nancy Drew mystery The Witch Tree Symbol (ghostwritten by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, 1955).

However, with sales of her books about cloistered communities reaching 13.5 million (Alter, par. 7), Beverly Lewis’s "bonnet books" (historical romances) have finally propelled the Amish novel into a genre of its own. The most successful writer in the Amish novel category, Lewis has said she was drawn to the subject matter of the Amish through her Anabaptist lineage on her mother’s side of the family and from growing up near Amish farmland in Lancaster County. “My connection to the Plain community comes from my mother’s Old Order Mennonite heritage,” clarifies Lewis. “Growing up, I was surrounded by Mother’s family at reunions and church gatherings” (FAQ, par. 6). Lewis asserts that this exposure, along with the friendships she nurtured with Plain children in elementary school, has allowed her to absorb “Plain tradition quite naturally” (qtd. in Mulligan, par. 14). Lewis has also speculated that she probably would not be crafting stories about the Amish were it not for her own Anabaptist ancestry.

But what makes these exotic tales about counter-cultural sects in general – and Lewis's pastorals in particular – so popular with the "bonnet book" target audience of evangelical women? Lewis herself has surmised that the Amish angle functions so effectively as a literary hook in her works because "there's something in us that longs for the simple and the peaceful and just a quieter life. We're just really hectic. I think that's a big draw" (qtd. in Ross, screen 1). Another big draw is that Lewis's Amish fare is "written clean," scrubbed of profanity and graphic depictions of sexual activity common to most bodice-rippers past and present. Indeed, many of Lewis's couples "lip-kiss" only once or twice in the span of hundreds of pages, making the rendezvous in these stories the tamest one can find on bookstore shelves – and successfully so. It is this focus on moral purity and a writing style as warm as a slice of fresh apple pie topped with cheese that keep Lewis's fans coming back not only for seconds, but for thirds of Lewis's "gentle reads."

Unlike the wry and acerbic character delineations of the brilliant Jane Austen (perhaps the quintessential "bonnet book" novelist), Lewis's narrators evince a warmth toward their characters, whether they deserve it or not. Arguably, the best example of Lewis's tender writing style and affectionate disposition toward her characters occurs at the beginning of The Parting (2007), Lewis's novel set during the 1966 schism between Old and New Order Amish over the use of tractors, among other things. In the prologue, Lewis's likable protagonist Nellie Mae Fisher, the Juliet of this star-crossed lovers story, charmingly explains to the reader why autumn is her favorite time of the year:

For as long as I can remember, I've eagerly awaited the harvest. Oh, the tantalizing scents wafting from Mamma's kitchen, come autumn. But it's not my mother's baking as much as it is my own that fills the house with mouthwatering aromas. Each year I entertain myself, seeing how many ways I can use pumpkin in an array of baked goodies. Naturally there are pumpkin pies and pumpkin breads. But I also delight in making pumpkin cookies with walnut pieces and brown sugar sprinkled atop. And there is spicy pumpkin custard, too, and gooey pumpkin cinnamon rolls – sticky buns, of course – cinnamon pumpkin muffins, and the most popular item of all: pumpkin cheesecake. (9)

It's not hard to imagine Lewis's fad-diet-tormented audience savoring the toothsome description of the confections available at Nellie's baked goods store in the above quotation. Also attractive is the euphonic repetition of the word "pumpkin" and the warmth of the color orange associated with that vegetable.

Nevertheless, not all characters in Lewis's stories are as genial as the cheerful Nellie Fisher, but even these exceptions receive compassionate treatment from their narrator. One of Lewis’s least agreeable characters is a volatile and waspish farmer named Zeke Hochstetler, a man falsely accused of murdering his baby brother Isaac when the boys were children. After Zeke is released from prison and cleared of all charges, he reconciles with both his father and brother Isaac (who did not die after all) and reports a born-again experience to his wife Esther:

No amount of talk from the brethren or anyone else is goin’ to change what I know in my heart . . . in my knower. God brought Isaac back to me – to us – for a reason. I never was at fault, the way I made myself out to be all those years. I should’ve obeyed my father that night, jah, but I didn’t cause my brother’s disappearance. . . . I’m on the path to healing. And I want to show my gratitude by givin’ all the rest of my days to God’s dear son, Jesus. (The Brethren335-36)

Zeke’s account of his conversion is apparently sincere, disarming readers who have witnessed Zeke physically and psychologically abuse his family over the course of the Annie’s People series. The author’s implied forgiving attitude toward Zeke invites the reader to turn the other cheek as well, difficult as that may be for the audience to do. Perhaps the author’s absolution of the antagonists in these plots is not all that unexpected, given that biblical values such as mercy are typically preached in Lewis’s corpus and that the adversaries themselves are often presented as trespassers more sinned-against than sinning.

The conservative feminism revealed in these novels may also account for their appeal to a wide swath of Christian women. On the one hand, Lewis’s stricter, more traditional readers appreciate the piety of her old-fashioned protagonists, who wear neither make-up, earrings, tattoos nor short skirts. On the other hand, Lewis’s more liberal fans note that almost all of her younger characters earn their own paychecks – usually as domestics – and some continue to work even after they marry and start a family. Lewis herself has noticed that her leading ladies are rarely the typical Amish Maedel next door and often exhibit a certain moxie: “For every lineup of Amish women at a gathering of any kind, you’ll always see one of them that has her hand kind of on her hip . . . . That’s my character. She’s the one that’s pushing boundaries” (qtd. in Gorski, par. 11).

Lewis writes something similar in The Preacher’s Daughter (2005), where meek farmwife Esther Hochstetler makes the following pregnant observation about best friend Annie Zook:

Still, there was something terribly enticing about Annie’s way. At times she had observed Annie in the line of young single women waiting to enter house church on a Sunday morning. Invariably, she would be the only girl with her hand perched on her hip. Not that Annie wanted to be bad-tempered, no. Neither was she known for being defiant. Even so, Esther thought she knew what made her tick, deep down. Preacher Zook’s only daughter had some difficulty with the idea of wholly submitting. (167-68)

This quotation may be the best indication we have of Lewis’s sexual politics. Although her most sympathetic heroes never go out of their way to defy fathers, husbands and bishops out of sheer perversity and rebellion, these leading ladies do not always see eye to eye with their male authority figures and definitely struggle with submitting to them. Usually, these conflicts center on why the hero is proscribed from engaging in certain artistic activities (e.g., painting, singing), while the patriarch in question, as keeper of tradition, is reduced to stating firmly and without elaboration, “It is our way.”

For this reason and others, Lewis’s books garner something of a mixed reaction in Plain communities. Lewis has said that she receives “oodles” of snail mail from Amish adults and teenagers asking her how she knows so much about private wedding ceremonies and Amish life in general (Mulligan, par. 14), which would seem to testify to the accuracy of her portrayals of the People. In one particular letter, an Amish correspondent confesses, “I don’t want to mislead you, Mrs. Lewis. . . . All of us are reading them [your books] under the covers” (qtd. in Sachs, par. 6). Margaret Perella, director of the Pequea Public Library in Lancaster County, likewise attests to the particular strength of Amish fiction circulation among Anabaptist patrons in that area (Haegele, pars. 17-18).

Criticisms of the accuracy of Lewis’s narratives are of the type usually leveled at romance novels in general – that they are too romanticized, sentimental and melodramatic. In her review of The Covenant (2002) and The Betrayal (2003), Zsofia Anna Toth perceives a “hyper idyllic depiction of the Plain life” in these stories that she feels read like a “soap opera with Amish characters” (Toth, par. 3). Beth Graybill of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society similarly opines that:

In [Amish] life, . . . serious buggy accidents are rare, and outsiders adapting to Amish life even more so. Kidnappings are unheard of and good bishops outnumber the bad. As for rumspringa – a period when teens may explore outside ways while deciding whether to make a lifetime commitment to the Amish faith – most communities have taken steps to respond to past excesses. . . . (qtd. in Rodgers, par. 27)

Perhaps the somewhat flattering depiction of the Amish in these works has to do with Lewis’s inclination to appear “very sympathetic to the Amish in my writing. I walk a line. I don’t want to offend anybody because this is so close to my own heritage” (qtd. in Ross, screen 2).

Despite Lewis’s desire not to ruffle the Amish community with her “tellin’s,” her books have been banned in some ordnungs, or church rules, in Ohio and Pennsylvania due to theological differences. Though Lewis quietly sidesteps interrogating some of the more controversial aspects of Amish culture (e.g., division of labor between men and women, prohibition of higher education), she is unabashedly evangelical in her presentation of the Gospel in her works. As the daughter of an Assemblies of God pastor and an active member of that church, Lewis allows her characters to attend Bible studies, pray charismatic prayers, and boldly claim salvation in Jesus Christ. Since Old Order Amish soteriology holds that it is prideful for the communion of earthly saints to claim salvation (as opposed to hoping to be saved), one can imagine that some of the more skeptical bishops of das alt Gebrauch (the old way) would see these novels as stalking horses for evangelism.

The Bonnet Book that Started It All: The Shunning

Beverly Lewis’s first adult novel The Shunning (1997), the book that inspired the current trend in historic peace church fiction, was a surprise hit with readers of inspirational romances and went on to become the prototype of the popular Amish fiction subgenre (Riess S8). Lewis was already a prolific writer of children’s titles by the time she published The Shunning with “modest expectations” (Riess S8) of the book’s commercial success in 1997. Lewis’s muse for the novel was her own grandmother Ada Ranck Buchwalter, who underwent the bann when she left her Old Order Mennonite community to marry a Bible college student. She was also shunned for wearing a simple gold wedding band and discarding her sacred head covering.

Set some time in the mid-1990s, Lewis’s Heritage of Lancaster County tetralogy (of which The Shunning is volume one) weaves the story of Amish protagonist Katie Lapp’s lapse into “English” modern life after she is ostracized for keeping her late fiancé’s beloved guitar in disobedience to her unusually stringent ordnung. As bishop of Hickory Hollow, Katie’s new husband-to-be John Beiler is “stricter than some” (138) about his church members’ playing of musical instruments, going so far as to crack down on boys bringing fiddles, guitars and even harmonicas to Saturday night youth singings. As one might expect, Bishop John’s distrust of guitars and the like causes considerable tension between him and his songbird fiancée Katie Lapp.

At the beginning of The Shunning, guilt-ridden aesthete Katie stumbles upon a satin baby gown in her parents’ attic, with the name Katherine Mayfield stitched into the back facing of the fabric. For some reason, the presence of the dress seems to encourage Katie’s putatively headstrong ways. Clutching the pink infant’s robe and sobbing next to the attic trunk, Katie correctly insists that from that pivotal moment on, “nothing was ever the same for me. Not for a single one of us here in Hickory Hollow” (19). Indeed, for the rest of the series, the pink garment functions as a key leitmotif and is, in at least a partially literal way, the thematic thread that ties Lewis’s Lancaster installments together.

But what is so significant about this article of clothing that will eventually lead Katie to conclude at the end of Lancaster’s second volume The Confession that the “tiny infant gown . . . had caused so much heartache yet brought so much joy”? (279). Lynn Neal suggests that Katie’s discovery of the little dress precipitates the main character’s “journey into her past” (130), culminating with the revelation that Katie Lapp is actually Katherine Mayfield, the natural daughter of wealthy New York “Englischer” Laura Mayfield-Bennett. Or, as Katie’s guardians Samuel and Rebecca Lapp succinctly put it, their girl is “English by birth and Plain by adoption” (The Shunning 167). Katie initially identifies herself with the former rather than the latter after chancing upon her parents’ secret in the attic, choosing to view the silky keepsake as a figurative birth certificate written in satin “proving” that she is and always will be an interloper among the People.

Nevertheless, as the gown is the narrative focal point of theLancasterseries, the glossy nightie surely acts as much more than a clothing label identifying which “store” the Lapps smuggled Katherine Mayfield home from. To analyze this dress conceit more fully, one must examine the appearance, texture and other physical characteristics of the garment to determine its role in the novels. While Katie searches for her mother’s Plain wedding dress in an attic trunk, readers of The Shunning are told that the soon-to-be-married Katie:

stumbled upon a tiny rose-colored dress. A satin baby dress. In the middle of our family treasures was the loveliest infant gown I’d ever seen, all tucked away in tissue paper. I removed the covering and began to stroke the fabric. Amish babies wore plain dresses in pale hues. Never patterns or plaids. And never, never satin. Where in all the world had Mamma gotten such a fancy thing? (16)

Later, Katie inspects the name Katherine Mayfield stitched into the fabric of the dress and deduces that “the gown had not been purchased in a store but rather was homemade, with the aid of an electric sewing machine” (151). Katie wonders with dramatic irony who “this Katherine . . . was” and what “her dress [is] doing in our attic?” (18).

Rebecca Lapp eventually divulges that she had given birth to a stillborn daughter at a Lancaster hospital twenty-two years earlier, only to have a red-haired teenager (Laura Mayfield) ask the anguished Lapps to adopt her daughter and raise the child as their own. For clearly sentimental reasons, Rebecca refuses to get rid of the dainty dress even when her family returns to the farm, despite the danger of Katie’s birth secret being exposed.

Rebecca herself is unsure why she has kept the rosy gown all these years, but her reluctance to dispose of the precious memento gives us a clue as to what the dress stands for. Rebecca ponders, “The dress – was it a symbol of the wicked outside world? Had Rebecca herself been too attached to it, to the glorious memory of their day of days? Was this dress the cause of all their present heartache?” (170). Rebecca thus associates the elegant infant’s outfit with non-Amish society that she dismisses as libertine, yet is ambivalently attracted to. And no one typifies the profligate, sublunary world more aptly to Rebecca than Katie’s “worldly” biological mother Laura Mayfield-Bennett.

Ostensibly, well-heeled Laura Mayfield-Bennett is the opposite of plain-living Rebecca Lapp in every way: whereas Katie thinks her mother Rebecca a dutifully “honest-to-goodness Amishwoman” (12), Laura’s shifty husband Dylan Bennett whines that his wife “had not abandoned her maiden name but had insisted on keeping it hyphenated. . . . Laura had surprised him, emerging as a much stronger and more dynamic personality than he’d ever supposed” (The Confession 50). And while Rebecca keeps a kitchen that looks the same as every other housewife’s in Hickory Hollow, Laura owns an “old English-style mansion” (The Shunning 255) full of “well-organized linen closets – tidy stacks of velvety monogrammed towels, satin bed sheets, and plush blankets” (The Reckoning 22). From this description of the showy Bennett estate’s contents, it is easy to see how this aristocratic Laura could have sewn a personalized satin baby gown as a “sewing project” (The Shunning 257) while awaiting the birth of her baby daughter Katherine.

Yet Rebecca Lapp may not be the paragon of Gelassenheit (submissive humility) that Katie thinks her mamma is. Inasmuch as the baby gown recalls “colorful silk, gleaming jewels, golden mirrors” (16) – the frippery of modern society – Rebecca’s attachment to the dress represents the Amish woman’s vicarious pleasure in Katie’s enjoyment of the fancy. Like the girl’s natural mother Laura, Katie fashions potpourri sachets out of dried lilac and, like her adoptive mother Rebecca, delights in taking them from their dresser drawers to sniff and play with. When Katie gets a job at her biological mother’s estate disguised as a maid, she “ran her fingers over the gilding highlights on the footboard” (The Confession 112) in her servant’s quarters and opens a large drawer containing several sachets clearly made by the refined Laura. Deeming the perfumed squares “a beautiful link between herself and her natural mother” (113), Katie holds “one of the tiny cloth bags against her face, letting it linger there, recalling the very first sachet she’d made as a girl, for her own dresser drawer back home” (112).

Katie’s conduct doubles that of Rebecca, who slips into Katie’s “[p]rivate and feminine” (The Shunning 231) room after Katie has been shunned, caressing the alluring crochet work and plump bed pillows found there:

Rebecca stood up again and breathed in the lovely lilac fragrance permeating the room. Katie’s room had always had a breezy freshness about it. Her daughter enjoyed drying lilac clumps and mixing them with various herbs and spices, placing the homemade potpourri into netting purchased at the General Store. She often concealed the sachet squares inside her dresser drawers.

Without thinking, Rebecca opened the top drawer of Katie’s dresser and leaned over to sniff the sweet scent. “Oh, Katie, what I wouldn’t give to make your troubles disappear,” she said aloud. Then, reaching inside, she tried to locate one of the little sachets. (232)

Instead of finding one of these sachets, Rebecca pulls out the satin baby dress, which is Lewis’s way of emphasizing Rebecca’s sensuality and its relationship to the rosy gown.

Though both Katie and Rebecca seem to get away with indulging in finery like doilies and lilac sachets, one peccadillo neither Samuel Lapp nor Katie’s second fiancé bishop John Beiler will wink at is Katie’s furtive guitar playing, prohibited in some Old Order ordnungs (Nettl and Myers 114). The strongest hint that the rose-colored infant’s robe resonates with this forbidden love of music occurs when Katie discovers the outfit, pressing this “whisper” of satin to her cheek and reminiscing about her late fiancé Dan Fisher:

In my frustration, I started humming a sad song – a tune Dan Fisher and I had made up on his guitar, the one Dat had forbidden me to play. The one I’d hidden away from his stern eyes all these years.

Time and again, I’d offered up my music and my tendency toward fancy things on the altar of repentance. (The Shunning 17)

Yet Katie is not so much unable as she is unwilling to silence her guitar: she is completely clear that “She did not want to stop the music – not her beloved music. Not the precious thing she and Daniel Fisher had so joyously shared” (32). In contrast to her quietistic mother, proud Katie feels it beneath her to suppress her desires, then gratify them when no eyes are there to disapprove.

Though she never admits it verbally, Rebecca, too, is attracted to the hypnotic melodies of Katie’s music, and Lewis stresses the connection between Rebecca’s guilty pleasure and Katie’s satin infant gown. In deep grief over the excommunication of her adopted daughter, Rebecca seeks comfort by gripping the pink garment to her heart and weeping over the sad state of affairs. At that very moment, Rebecca hears Katie’s muffled guitar strumming on the other side of the wall in the Lapps’ dawdi haus (grandparent house):

And then she heard it – the delicate, almost timid strains of a guitar. Who was playing? And where?

She went to the hallway and pressed her ear against the wall. It was a solid foundational wall, shared by both the Dawdi Haus and her own home. As she listened, holding her breath, the sounds became more clear. Katie’s voice – mellow and sweet – singing the saddest melody she’d ever heard.

So the girl had disobeyed yet again. Katie had not destroyed the guitar as the bishop would surely have ordered her to do at the private confession.

It was difficult to make out the words, but the mournful tune caught Rebecca’s attention, suiting her own mood. Good thing Samuel and the boys were outside now, tending to milking chores. Besttheynot hear the guitar music or the singing coming from next door. (232-33)

Loath “to forsake the haunting music,” Rebecca “went back to Katie’s room, returned the baby dress to the gaping drawer, and headed downstairs to make supper” (233).

It is this scene in the novel that offers readers the most persuasive evidence of what the silky garment signifies: out of all her questionable hobbies, music-making is the most precious to Katie (yet another bent she inherits from her natural mother). In all reality, playing the guitar is the only proclivity Katie truly has difficulty repressing, as her ordnung allows her abundant opportunities to exercise creativity via needlepoint projects, quilt-making and other handicrafts (McCauley and McCauley 15).

Rebecca’s disappointment with Katie’s disobedience over playing the guitar strikes readers as mildly hypocritical, given that Rebecca is equally culpable of defying Samuel by refusing to toss out the pink baby dress, or at least hiding it properly. As Samuel himself reflects:

Minutes ago, it had come to his attention that Katie had stumbled onto the tiny garment – had found it in the attic. How, on God’s earth, after all these years? Had Rebecca ignored his bidding? She was a good and faithful wife, his Rebecca, but when it came to Katie, there was no reasoning with the woman. She had a soft place holed up in her heart for the girl. Surely Rebecca had obeyed him and at least done her best to hide the dress away. Surely she had. (The Shunning 42)

Later, as Katie’s behavior approaching her wedding to forty year-old widower John Beiler becomes increasingly ferhoodled (erratic), Rebecca decides she must get rid of Katie’s baby dress forthwith. Rebecca admits that “the thought of destroying the garment had tempted her” but that “upon approaching the woodstove, another thought kept her from tossing the tiny gown into the fire. A frightening flash of reason – and absurdity. What if someday this is all you have left?”(58). Rebecca’s presentiment that she will lose her girl foreshadows Katie’s journey to New York to track down Laura Mayfield-Bennett at the end of The Shunning.

Just as Samuel Lapp reminds Rebecca that it is unacceptable for her to keep Katie’s baby dress, he similarly informs Katie that she must destroy her first fiancé’s proscribed guitar and refrain from singing and making music in memory of her sweetheart Dan Fisher. After Katie reveals at the Lapp dinner table that she suffers irresistible temptations to pick at Dan’s guitar strings, household head Samuel fumes, “Maybe if you’d destroyed that instrument of evil when I first caught you at it, that guitar wouldn’t be destroyin’ you now” (32). Thus ordered to make a full confession to the bishop, a shamed Katie stands before her fiancé and hears him utter the words she most dreads: “We must crucify our flesh, resist the things of the world. Do you agree to turn your back on songs not found in the Ausbund?” (125). When she replies affirmatively, John asks further, “And the guitar . . . will you destroy that instrument of evil?” (126). Fearing the bann, Katie dissembles and promises to trash the guitar, satisfying her standhaft (doctrinaire) beau exceedingly.

However, Katie cannot seem to carry out the order to destroy the instrument any more than Rebecca is able to throw Katie’s baby gown into the woodstove. Returning to the house after retrieving the hidden guitar from the haymow, the would-be incendiary Katie “opened the round grate on the top of the woodstove, almost succumbing to the reckless impulse to burn the guitar and get it over with – once and for all” (The Shunning 148). Experiencing qualms about “forever reliving the heart-wrenching memory of the final, destructive act, carried out by her own hands” (148), Katie decides instead to stow the guitar away in the house – in exactly the same spot Rebecca has hidden the rose-colored baby dress that she, too, failed to destroy.

While readers may find it difficult to believe that both Rebecca and Katie would hide their forbidden mementos in the same corner of the cold cellar of the farmhouse, this coincidence ultimately throws into relief another instance of doubling between the two women. Determined that the “satin baby dress must be buried – along with the memory of Daniel Fisher” (50), Rebecca covertly retrieves the dainty nightie wrapped in tissue paper she had taped to the underside of the blanket chest in the attic. When no one else is home, Rebecca creeps downstairs into the cellar-pantry where she stores her preserves. As she does so, the audience is treated to an itemized description of the larder’s contents, a description imbued with the “ample detail” that is characteristic of Lewis’s style (rev. of The Secret 35):

Piles of potatoes, onions, turnips, and sweet potatoes were stored separately, more than enough until the next harvest. There were rows and rows of canning jars filled with pickled beets, chow-chow, tomato relish, bean salads, and Rebecca’s luscious jams and jellies. (The Shunning 57-58)

The narrator’s specificity about the kinds of canned produce shelved in the cellar cabinets serves at least two purposes: first, Anita Gandolfo affirms that for many readers, “learning about Amish culture [i]s one of the significant satisfactions of reading Lewis’s books” (77). Second, because both the basement and the attic are the “private, marginal spaces of the house generally used for storage” (Geyh 107), they symbolize both Katie and Rebecca’s unconscious. Consequently, as Rebecca slinks past underground cupboards full of conserves, she is, figuratively speaking, delving inward into her psyche, past concerns with her daily chores of preparing food for her family.

Lighting a kerosene lamp, Rebecca tiptoes deep into the cold cellar to the niche where the dowry furniture for Katie’s aborted engagement to Dan Fisher is stored. Casting the lantern’s glow onto the sturdy pine furniture, Rebecca notices Katie’s baby cradle balanced high atop the corner cupboard. Inside the cradle, Rebecca pulls out a milk-white vase, “quite narrow and deep” (The Shunning 63); Rebecca fondly remembers that her Mennonite cousin Lydia Miller had presented the Lapp family with a bouquet of garden flowers the day after Katie was born. The vase represents Rebecca’s own heart in that the vessel is white (i.e., pure) as well as fragile, narrow, and deep. In turn, Lydia’s blooms symbolize the flower-loving Katie, who (as the novel’s implied author suggests) is God’s fancy gift to Rebecca and Samuel from the unruly outside world.

Rebecca ultimately judges that the “tall vase, quite narrow and deep, would make an exceedingly safe hiding place” (63) for the pink infant’s gown. Unrepentant at disobeying her husband’s wishes, she rolls up the delicate robe and stuffs it into the empty vase, satisfied that “the deed was done” (63). Just as Rebecca pushes the secret of Katie’s birth deep down into her soul, so does she unblinkingly clog the milk-white vase with the pink baby dress.

Similar heart imagery occurs at the beginning of the novel, before the reader knows the sketchy circumstances surrounding Katie’s birth: tender memories of Katie’s childhood cause Rebecca to “push back the secret fear, push it deep into the inner sanctuary of her mind. That place where she’d learned to carry it, sequestered from all conscious thought” (25). Also, when Katie finds out about her adoption and Samuel suggests that she owes her life to them, Rebecca counters mentally, “That’s where you’re wrong, Samuel Lapp. . . .Don’t you know it was our Katie who gave me a reason to live twenty-two years ago? It was Katie’s coming that had filled Rebecca’s empty heart, her empty arms” (174).

Notably, it is Katie who breaks the vase (and her mother’s heart) as she sneaks downstairs into the cellar-pantry to find a new cubbyhole for her taboo guitar. Sophistically persuading herself that Bishop John did not really order her to get rid of the instrument, Katie sneaks Dan’s guitar from the barn to the house:

Had Bishop John meant for her to do away with the guitar completely? She tried to remember his exact words at her confessing. But the more she tried, the more difficult it was to believe that such a kindhearted man would have insisted on destroying a lovely, well-crafted instrument. Surely, it would be no problem to merely put it out of sight somewhere. The idea was appealing. (148)

Retracing her mother’s steps into the dim corners of the cold cellar and a figurative descent into her own unconscious, Katie also sidles past storage cupboards full of preserves associated with the chores she performs at the farm. Katie then rushes “through the narrow passageway to the darkest part of the cellar” to “the dowry furniture . . . [a]nd all the wondrous, innocent love it represented” (149). Standing on a water bucket, Katie slides the case onto the top of the cupboard but realizes that a cradle is in the way.

Katie considers it comical that “her mother had stored the baby bed in the exact spot – the same dark, out-of-the-way place – that she had planned to conceal her forbidden guitar” (149). When Katie budges the cradle, the vase containing the pink baby gown falls out and smashes to bits on the floor beneath her. After frantically sweeping up the white shards off the cellar floor, Katie pads once again into the dawdi haus and stores her wooden treasure in a crawl space. After doing so, Katie returns to the main house, feeling “unashamed. The deed was done – a deceitful act – yet she felt absolutely no remorse. Why should she . . . when someone in her family was being dishonest with her?” (150). This passage echoes the language Lewis uses to convey Rebecca’s lack of guilt after stashing the rosy outfit inside Lydia’s vase: “Rebecca never once thought how she would go about getting the dress out again, or even if there would come a time when she would need – or want – to do so. It was enough that the deed was done” (63).

The shattering of the fragile vase portends the heartbreak Rebecca will suffer when the Hickory Hollow congregation votes to put Katie under the bann or “Meinding“ [sic, formeidung]: “The Scriptures and theology behind the practice of shunning were familiar enough to Rebecca, but today the Meinding took on a heartbreaking new dimension. Today it had struck at her very heart – her beloved Katie” (228). Though the Amish view putting an offender under the bann as an act of love “preserv[ing] the purity of the church” (Kraybill and Bowman 110) and intended to draw the transgressor back into the community, Katie does not interpret her punishment that way. Cleaning selected personal items out of her bedroom, Katie runs away from her home and rents a room from her Mennonite cousin Lydia Miller with the ultimate goal of tracking down her natural mother in New York.

Likely, Lydia Miller’s fluted nosegay holder not only symbolizes Rebecca Lapp’s fractured sanity but also Katie Lapp’s own broken heart. When Katie first learns of her adoption, she regards the disclosure as “shattering” (166) but mimics her mother by feigning sang-froid over the crushing revelation:

She hid the numbness away, as deep inside as she could push it, just as Mam had pushed the baby dress deep into the white vase. If she did not suppress the pain, Katie feared it would surface to wound her mother yet again and tear savagely at her own future. And so she did what [her best friend] Mary would call “the right thing.” She kept her secret safe – buried in her heart. (181)

However, just as the vase in which the baby dress is bottled up shatters, freeing the gown from its confines, Katie’s broken heart allows her to “cut loose” (282) and let the music out at long last. Though Katie leaves the rose-colored infant dress with Rebecca as a sentimental gesture, Katie removes her guitar from the crawl space in the Lapps’ dawdi haus and absconds with it to the music-loving Millers’ home. Much to Katie’s delight, “Three- and four-part harmonies filled the house every evening after supper. My guitar had found a temporary home, and so had my broken heart” (The Confession 13).

The most pleasant aspect of Katie’s happy stay at the Millers’ is being able to explore her musical gifts openly. A woman who believes that “[s]inging is good for the soul” (146), hospitable Lydia blithely invites Katie (now “Katherine Mayfield”) to attend church with her family, and Katie looks forward to making the next visit: “What singing! And, oh, how the people got up and testified. It was like going to heaven before you died” (61). As Katie sits on a cushioned pew in the Hickory Hollow Mennonite meetinghouse during Sunday worship, readers cannot help but notice the recurrent theme of Katie’s delight at the sound of music juxtaposed with her love for satin:

When the song leader stood up before the people, he tooted softly into his pitch pipe, and the congregation began to sing out spontaneously in a rich four-part harmony.

Under Katherine’s satiny sleeves, goose pimples popped out on her arms. Once again, all heaven came down, pouring right in through lovely, bright windows. A foretaste of Glory filled the place, accompanied by the rapturous sound of the a cappella choir. (64)

Weary of her struggle against music, Katie finally surrenders her artistic gifts to God, who she believes blessed her and Dan with the burden of music: “Mammi [Essie] had died suspecting the truth – that the music had been a divine gift within Katie. God, the Creator of all things, had created her to make music. It wasn’t Katie’s doing at all” (The Shunning 78).

Gradually, Katie comes to the realization that God did not endow her with a gift for music for her own stingy pleasure, but appointed her to share her talents with others for Christ’s glory. On a mission to explore her musical gifts and find her natural mother Laura, Katie leaves her cousins’ house to take a maid’s job under the alias “Katherine Lapp Marshfield” at Laura Mayfield-Bennett’s estate in Canandaigua, NY. When she gets there, she discovers that Laura’s slimy husband Dylan Bennett has hired an actress to pose as Katie to swindle the real Amish woman out of her inheritance. Realizing she needs the pink baby gown to prove Laura’s maternity and expose the imposter, Katie pleads with best friend Mary Stoltzfus and village wise woman Ella Mae Zook to steal the satin dress and post it up to Canandaigua. This feat proves to be no small favor, as Rebecca has become psychologically unstable since Katie’s shunning and has developed a febrile “obsession with Katie’s satin baby gown” (The Confession 42), seeing it as a kind of security blanket and “lifeline to Katie” (225).

After receiving the dress in the mail, Katie is able to prove her biological connection to Laura and show her the precious dress before she tragically passes away. Once Laura breathes her last, Katie inherits her mother’s riches, and this reversal of fortune allows Katie the leisure to volunteer her musical talents at a local hospice. It is while performing at the Canandaigua Hospice that Katie experiences an epiphanic call on her life: “For a moment, she wondered if maybe this was the reason she had come to Canandaigua. Maybe this, in God’s providence, had been the real purpose for her search so far from home” (The Reckoning 145).

Meanwhile, though her shunning encourages the development of her musical talents, loneliness and rejection cause Katie to feel “disabled at times, like someone with a crippling disease” (The Confession 59). Rebecca, too, appears addled without her daughter around, missing the adopted girl like “a cripple might pine for an amputated arm or leg” (41). After Laura Mayfield-Bennett’s death, Katie senses God spurring her back to Hickory Hollow in answer, presumably, to Rebecca’s heartfelt prayers. Just as Katie cozened the little baby dress out of Rebecca temporarily to bring happiness to a dying woman, so the young heiress also realizes that her mission in Canandaigua is complete once Laura Mayfield-Bennett expires. Katie’s music brought relief to the failing Laura when Katie, posing as a maid at the Bennett estate, sang songs that reminded Laura of “a mother’s soprano voice, clear and true” (117) and played guitar pieces that “soothe[d Laura] as [they] came trickling down through ceiling vents, carrying her back to dreamland” (120).

However, the name-altering games Katie plays throughout the Heritage novel series foreshadow her eventual return to Hickory Hollow and Plain life. The day before her wedding to John Beiler, she asks her mother if she thought the baby the Lapps took home twenty-two years ago ever looked like a “Katherine.” Rebecca answers, “Not after we undressed you and put away the satin dress. Once we renamed you, I guess . . . well, you always looked like a little girl named Katie to Dat and me. . . . Jah, I can say here and now, you looked just like a Katie . . . right from the start” (The Shunning 176). Around the same time, Katie alters her horse’s name from Tobias to “Satin Boy” – an anagram for “Tobias NY,” and indeed, when Katie rechristens herself Katherine Mayfield and bolts to New York, she acculturates to her mother’s high society like an Amish workhorse at a cotillion.

But by the end of the third Lancaster volume Reckoning, the series’ protagonist is neither Katie Lapp, nor Katherine Mayfield, nor even Katherine Lapp Marshfield: she legally becomes Mrs. Katie (Dan) Fisher. While dusting books in her mother’s library, Katie stumbles across Laura’s diaries that spell out exactly why Laura wanted Katie to grow up in an Amish family. Apparently, Laura’s mother had driven Laura around the pleasant Lancaster Amish country to relieve her stress and anxiety about the approaching birth of her child:

I must have known then in my heart why we had come to Lancaster. My baby was going to grow up here. I wanted her to fill the empty arms of a broken-hearted woman. I wanted her to run barefoot in the meadow, catch fireflies, learn to make quilts, and pick strawberries in the hot sun. I wanted my dear Katherine to work and play hard, to have all the simple things I’d missed out on. Most of all, I wanted her to be loved by a complete family. And I wanted her to grow up Plain. (270-71)

Katie thus marvels that both of her mothers, by nature and nurture, meant her to be Plain. Though Henry Zehr charges that Lewis portrays Old Order Amish “more or less as a cult” (Zehr, Moss, and Nichols 606) in The Shunning, readers can see that Amish life is depicted rather idyllically in The Reckoning. Declining a marriage proposal from the very eligible artist Justin Wirth (Lewis’s personification of perceived English trappings), Katie gathers “her bag and her guitar” (The Reckoning 277) and shows up on Dan Fisher’s doorstep in Lancaster.

In marrying Dan Fisher and embracing the Mennonite faith, Katie negotiates a compromise that allows her to remain Plain while establishing a music ministry with her husband. Speaking to her now-lucid mother after the wedding ceremony at the Hickory Hollow Mennonite meetinghouse, Katie mentions that she and Dan will be “stopping off in Canandaigua on the way home [from the honeymoon]. Dan and I are planning a hymn concert of two guitars at the Mayfield hospice” (280). Surprisingly, Katie does not return the satin baby gown to her psychologically fragile mother as the reader may expect, but with the real Katie home, Rebecca no longer really needs the silky little memento. Instead, Katie stores the pink baby dress with the Plain wedding gown she had sewn for her wedding to Bishop John Beiler. In The Reckoning’s epilogue, Katie explains:

Yesterday, I sorted through my handmade linens and came across the blue Amish dress I’d sewn nearly a year ago. Rather than discard it, I wrapped it in tissue paper, along with the rose-colored baby gown. Together, the two articles of clothing tell a wonderful-good story, truth be known. (281)

Just as Rebecca did, Katie stows her Amish wedding dress away with the English baby gown. In this way, Lewis demonstrates that Katie’s Mennonite compromise allows Katie to synthesize Anabaptist ethos with “shar[ing] the love of Jesus in song wherever He leads us” (281). By the end of The Reckoning, our lead character is a hybridized Katie Fisher who is Plain and Fancy all rolled into one, and a Christian who is finally able to set down her baggage and do her duty to God.

October Song– the final installment of the Lancaster County series – surveys “the diversity of Christian beliefs in this community [Hickory Hollow] and the effect that choosing to follow God has had on the families divided by different beliefs” (Duncan 156). Readers find out in October Song that after her wedding to Dan, Katie still engages in only frosty, awkward interactions with her family. Still, tolerant Rebecca tells Mary Stoltzfus (now Mary Beiler) that Katie “and Daniel seem happy as larks. They’ve found a ministry Katie says they’re both ‘called to.’ Mennonites have a different view on church music, ya know” (52). Regardless of her doubts, Rebecca hints that Mennonite hymnody is only different, not necessarily impious. Nevertheless, despite the wedge driven between Katie and her family because of theological differences, Dan and his wife content themselves with composing “hymn arrangements for their guitar duets. Often, the newlyweds were invited to play in home gatherings, as well as at their church. All for the glory of God” (20).

Although the Heritage of Lancaster County series is not resolved with a facile happily-ever-after ending wherein both Dan and Katie are fully reconciled to their estranged families, Dan and Katie do have each other and a fulfilling music ministry. After Katie wraps up the baby gown at the end of The Reckoning, the strange little garment is never pothered over again. Just as the fancy outfit is no longer taped to the bottom of a cedar chest nor ignominiously stuffed into a hidden vase, so Katie’s musical talents are no longer her dirty little secret. On the contrary, the dress effectively disappears from Lewis’s pages when the two main characters finally get what they want: for Katie, it is music, and for Rebecca, it is Katie.

In one of the most revealing scenes of the Lancaster tetralogy, Rebecca expresses regret over not destroying the baby garment when she had the chance:

Only one thing she would do different if she could change things. She would have destroyed the satin infant gown that had stirred up such commotion with Katie, leading her away from the People – up to that English woman in New York. As much as she’d loved the perty [sic] rose-colored dress, she knew, for sure and for certain, the fancy little thing was the reason why her secret – her and Samuel’s – ended up having to be told. (The Reckoning 111)

Yet in the next sentence Rebecca becomes bitter that “the baby gown was gone, tricked out of her own hands by Ella Mae Zook” (111).

So which is it? Does Rebecca earnestly repent that she kept the little pink dress, or is she only sorry she was caught with it? The answer to this question lies in the fact that, significantly, Rebecca chooses the English infant’s robe to be her spiritual lifeline to Katie over the girl’s Plain Amish dresses and choring clothes left behind in her bedroom in the Lapp farmhouse. For all that Rebecca bemoans Katie’s flair for the fancy as shaming the family, the reader doubts that Rebecca would have favored her adopted daughter with such a marked preference were it the diffident Mary Stoltzfus who was brought home from the Lancaster hospital that fateful day over twenty years ago.

Ultimately, the same satin baby robe not only represents Katie’s “bent for forbidden melodies and guitars” (The Shunning 135) but also Laura Mayfield-Bennett and Rebecca Lapp’s attraction to those things as well. Though these three women ostensibly have little in common, Beverly Lewis shows through theLancasterseries how a paradoxical affinity for plain and fancy dovetails in these Christians’ hearts. Indeed, Laura and Rebecca seem to be opposite sides of the same coin, with the wealthy Laura harboring a repressed interest in Plain society and humble Rebecca hankering secretly for the frills of English life. Laura and Rebecca’s struggle to reconcile plain and fancy comes full circle in their daughter Katie who ends up living a lifestyle that probably comes close to both Laura’s and Rebecca’s unrealized ideal. In this way, Katie not only is truly her mothers’ daughter after all, she is also these women’s wish fulfillment.

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “They’re No Bodice Rippers, But Amish Romances Are Hot.” Wall Street Journal. 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 5 May 2010.

Duncan, Melanie C. Rev. of October Song, by Beverly Lewis. Library Journal 1 Sept. 2001: 156.

Gandolfo, Anita. Faith and Fiction: Christian Literature in America Today. Westport: Praeger, 2007.

Geyh, Paula E. “Burning Down the House? Domestic Space and Feminine Subjectivity in Marilynne Robinson's ‘Housekeeping.’” Contemporary Literature 34.1 (1993): 103-22.

Gorski, Eric. “Contemporary Amish Fiction Gains A Following.” Boston.com. Boston Globe, 17 July 2009. Web. 6 May 2010.

Haegele, Katie. “The Amish Romance: Bonnets, But No Bosoms.” Philly.com. Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 19 May 2010.

Kraybill, Donald B., and Carl F. Bowman. On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 2001.

Lewis, Beverly.The Brethren. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2006.

---.The Confession. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997.

---. FAQ. n.d.BeverlyLewis.com. Web. 2 June 2010.

---.October Song. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001.

---.The Parting. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2007.

---.The Preacher’s Daughter. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005.

---.The Reckoning. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998.

---.The Shunning. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997.

McCauley, Daniel, and Kathryn McCauley. Decorative Arts of the Amish of Lancaster County. Intercourse PA: Good Books, 1988.

Mulligan, Ane. “Author Interview ~ Beverly Lewis.”Novel Journey. 26 July 2007. Web. 3 May 2010.

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Nettl, Bruno, and Helen Myers. Folk Music in the United States. Detroit: Wayne State U P, 1976.

Nolt, Steven M. History of the Amish. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003.

Rev. of The Secret, by Beverly Lewis. Publishers Weekly 9 Feb. 2009: 35.

Riess, Jana. “Hitching a Ride on the Amish Buggy.” Publishers Weekly 2 June 2008: S8.

Rodgers, Ann. “In Amish Romance Novels, Racy Takes a Back Seat to Values.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 16 Aug. 2009. Web. 17 May 2010.

Ross, Dena. “Amish Gone Wild?” Beliefnet.com. Fox Entertainment Group, n.d. Web. 5 May 2010.

Sachs, Andrea. “Amish Romance Novels: No Bonnet Rippers.” Time. Time, 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 5 May 2010.

Toth, Zsofia Anna. Rev. of The Covenant and The Betrayal, by Beverly Lewis. WomenWriters.net. 6 June 2005. Web. 6 May 2010.

Weaver-Zercher, David.The Amish in the American Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 2001.

Zehr, Henry, Glenda Moss, and Joe Nichols. “Amish Teacher Dialogues with Teacher Educators: Research, Culture, and Voices of Critique.” Qualitative Report 10.3 (2005): 593-620. Web. 20 May 2010.

About the Author

Michelle Thurlow

Michelle Thurlowis a lecturer in English at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Her master’s thesis from the University of Saskatchewan was on anti-Catholicism and the novels of Charlotte Bronte. Her research interests are in the Christian novel and Christianity in popular culture, which led to her special interest in the novels of Beverly Lewis.