Defining romance à la “Amish romance” novels
Cows crossing highway in Holmes County, Ohio.
The Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher (Johns Hopkins, 2013) might appear at first to be an expose on “bonnet rippers,” which of course is a play on “bodice rippers.” It might sound like a titillating read but it’s not—in the sense we usually think of that word.
It is an educated study, which had at least 24 words I had to look up, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit. More on that in a minute.
Romance novels are hot, so to speak, and within the genre, Amish romance novels sell very well: the top Amish romance novelists—Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall—had sold a combined total of 24 million books at the time of the writing of Weaver-Zercher’s book.
But The Thrill of the Chaste is fascinating reading for anyone interested in literature, publishing, marketing, religions, Mennonites, Amish, Anabaptists or inspirational fiction. That’s me in aces so although admittedly some of it may be a little over the top for a reader with only passing interest in the topic, I was eager to digest the whole thing. Although I was an English major in college and loved reading the wide variety of literature assigned in my studies, I have not formally kept up with anything related to the study of literature and literary theories and approaches. So in that sense it was very much like reading a college text on the topic. It would make an interesting and not-light-weight college course.
Indeed I was hit almost immediately with words I didn’t remember reading before, or have occasion to run into. So test yourself: how many of these do you know?
Anomic, bromidic, liminality, polysemy, somniferous, elision, vector, whorl, recondite, bricolage, cynosure, nonpareil, panoptic, truculently, ludic, anomalous, jejune, diegetic, sere, semaphore, ambit, antipode, synecdoche, bildungsroman.
Humph. I see that spellchecker doesn’t know a number of these either.
But don’t let these scare you away. In almost all of the cases, I could certainly get the meaning of what the author was saying without looking anything up. So it got to be a game with me and I started keeping track of the stoppers. In some ways the book reads like a scholarly journal but way more interesting and chatty.
Valerie (I’ll go with her first name since I’ve worked with her in a couple of settings) admits Amish romance novels are a very small subgenre and some would hesitate to call much of it “literature.” She thoroughly explores the hype and myths that some in the business or publishing world have trotted out as they’ve written about the explosion of the subgenre in the last 10 years, especially the last five. Bloomberg Businessweek in the summer of 2010, for instance, featured a cover of a book called Mennonite Romance, with a title “Getting Dirty in Dutch Country” (p. 67). See also Salon’s take, here. Valerie admits that Businessweek’s use of the lusty cover is mostly satirical but says that “many observers miss [that] sexed-up contemporary romance novels and steamy encounters between hunks with long black hair and lusty heroines like the one depicted in Mennonite Romance are exactly what Amish romance novels are not. Amish-themed romances are defined by the absence of overt sexuality, and loyal readers of the subgenre are as articulate about what they don’t want in their books as what they do.”
In short, Amish romance novels are written to find harmony with the main audience of evangelical Christian readers who are looking more for purity than the anything goes mentality of current culture. They are for women (and some men) who are looking for books that are “safe for kids to pick up” if they leave them laying around the house. Valerie quotes one editor of Amish fiction saying readers “want a clean read … a sweet story.” (p. 148).
Valerie is a superb writer: precise word choices, little redundancy, and lovely metaphors who has fun with her topic (to the point I found myself laughing delightedly in places) even as she harvests every conceivable angle of the field. She looks at how Amish romance novels take readers away from the hypermodern and hypersexualized times we live in, and how such books may be affecting the Amish themselves. There are many fans among the Amish and Valerie ventures that these books may possibly become like a “Trojan horse” into Amish communities. She delves into early examples of the genre from the early 1900s, including my own publisher and now employer, Herald Press’s early “novels” such as Rosanna of the Amish (based on a true story) by Joseph Yoder and others by Clara Bernice Miller and Mary Christner Bontrager.
Valerie examines her own motives in writing the book, a Mennonite who has Amish second cousins and also a husband who is a published spokesperson in the field. I liked how in her acknowledgments, she tips her hat to her three sons for “putting up with dinnertime conversation about cultural theory and Amish agency and commodification” as she and her husband discussed her project. “We can talk about other things now,” she says in tribute to her sons.
But the field of literary study and publishing in general is blessed for Valerie engaging with this topic in such a multifaceted and captivating way.
For more on differences/similarities among Amish/Mennonites, see Third Way Café’s most popular FAQ.