In today's blog on Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish by Joe Mackall, I'll discuss some of the highlights of this book, which is about the conservative Swartzentruber Amish of northern Ohio.
Mackall deals at length with buggies, which are of symbolic as well as practical importance to the Amish way of life. He points out that there is no more potent symbol of the Amish to the outside world than the buggy. Also, no Amish group, no matter has liberal, has given up the buggy. They may air-condition them, put in modern upholstery and attach headlights, but all groups are wedded to the buggy.
This is not because of nostalgia for an idealized 19th-century past. Instead, Mackall says, the buggy holds the community together. Buggy travel is slow and this keeps the Amish close to home, he says. It keeps them tied to the community. Mackall describes a trip he takes to a Home Depot with his friend Samuel. It takes about two hours to drive the 10 miles by buggy and after they arrive, they spend a long time in the store, both because frugal Samuel has to calculate building supply prices to the penny, but also because the horses need time to rest. Not only does the buggy tie Samuel to his community, it also causes people to adapt to a slower, more natural life rhythm.
Mackall is also critical of the buggy, at least as the Swartzentruber Amish use it. Unlike other groups, they won't put on lights, so the buggies can be difficult to see in the dark. As I remember, they have compromised and will use some sort of reflective sticker, but that can be difficult to see in a fast moving car until it's too late.
As a neighbor, and as himself a parent, Mackall worries about the safety of the buggies on roads increasingly crowded with cars. (My impression is that the roads near Mackall's and the Amish homes are sparsely traveled by the standards of most of America but have seen an increase in cars. The Amish worry about the increased number of cars, but seem unwilling to change their ways. ) Mackall cites statistics about accidents and fatalities with buggies, which are low, but still occur. Mackall is frustrated, because he believes many of the accidents and fatalities could be prevented.
He also worries about the Amish habit of letting children stand in the back of the fragile buggies. Once, he's sees a young child fall out of the back of buggy that is only secured with an X made by two bungee cords. The child hits its head, but the father insists the youngster is fine. Mackall is concerned and again, frustrated that the Amish won't take more precautions.
He notes that Swartzentruber Amish approach medicine somewhat differently from the rest of us, relying heavily on chiropractors. Of course, they have no medical insurance. They do use hospitals when necessary. They're also likely to pull teeth more quickly than we are, taking the practical approach (to them) that lots of costly dental work isn't worth it.
The story of Jonas, who has left the Amish to join the "English" world, is woven throughout the book. We see how very difficult it is for someone with no documentation, not even a social security number, and no high school diploma or GED (the Amish leave school after grade 8), to make it in the modern world. His family, under pressure from the wider Amish community, shuns Jonas in hopes of getting him to cave in and come back. Jonas is also hampered by his own naive views of the wider world. He initially survives only because English friends take care of him. Part of the discussion of Jonas describes a halfway world of Amish "ex-patriots" who have left the Amish community but never quite give up Amish ways. Jonas is both attracted to this half-way world and yet determined to fully assimilate into "English" life.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Swartzentruber Amish is their courtship rituals. While different Amish groups have different rituals, among the Swartzentrubers, young people between 17 and 21 engage in a dating practice in which they will lie awake all night on a bed together.
Mackall touches on the low status of women in the Swartzentruber hierarchy. He worries about Samuel's daughters and their lack of choices in a patriarchal community and wonders if he would feel compelled to help them, betraying Samuel, if they wanted to leave. Yet he sees Samuel's wife as contented with her lot as homemaker and mother of ten children, though he also applauds her literacy and her enthusiasm for reading Amish fiction. I wish Mackall had spent more time on the topic of women's status in the community.
Mackall tries to paint a balanced portrait of the Amish community. A thread of anxiety runs through the book: He fears that it will be perceived as a betrayal by Samuel and possibly get his friend into trouble with the community, where he is a minister.
It's difficult to see how Samuel won't be wounded by the book. The book does raise concerns about the line between friendship and scholarship. Is it ethical to make our friends subjects we dissect and analyze? How do we walk that line? Clearly, it's valuable for the wider world to gain insights into the Amish culture, but at what cost?