It took me a long time to discover that God made me a feisty, curious, plain Mennonite farm girl for a reason. ~ Shirley Hershey Showalter
If you substituted the word 'Amish' for 'Mennonite', I could have written this statement. It was written by a kindred spirit, Shirley Hershey Showalter, whose first memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, was launched a month ago. Rich in sensory details, this is a memoir of a happy childhood, with two responsible parents who were farmers in the tradition of their Anabaptist ancestors before them.
Even though hers was a happy childhood, Showalter had aspirations early on of living life beyond the world she knew: she dreamed of becoming a teacher and an academic. I will not go into many details of the book, because you will want to experience Showalter's life story for yourself, from her earliest childhood memories until she left home at eighteen years old.
I believe this is an important book for several reasons.
Showalter's story is authentic. You know all those books called "Amish romance novels" on the market today -- the ones that show a young Amish woman in a pastoral Amish setting on the book covers? These are "happy" stories too, but they often lack authenticity. (Unless you read the books written by the only Amish-born author of this genre, Linda Byler.) Furthermore, the hundreds of books in this genre miss something very important in their pages -- what it's really like when a feisty, curious girl is born into a Plain culture. There is only one way to know what the tension between the community and the self is like and that is to have experienced it.
Showalter lived this struggle. When the young people in her congregation were asked to "rededicate their lives to Christ" several years after she had been saved and became a member of the church, most of the young people complied and did so. Showalter did not follow the other young people who had been asked to come forward. I found myself sitting right beside her on that bench, feeling alone and different, and yet knowing she was doing the right thing. To resist going with the group takes tremendous courage, and I know that lonely place well.
I keep thinking this: After all the Amish romance novels, after all the reality television shows about Amish and Mennonite teenagers going off to big cities, after all the trumped-up stories about what it's like to be lured into the world, aren't people the least bit curious about what life in Plain communities is actually like, and what it really feels like to be torn between two worlds? Blush is just such a story. After reading Blush, I found myself hoping that Showalter will write a sequel. I have a feeling that the tires spinning on the gravel as she leaves home to attend college was a new beginning in Showalter's life. I want to discover that new life with her, as she invited me to do with her childhood in Blush.
There are also personal reasons why I find Blush an important book. I am often asked a what if question: Had my family been a well-adjusted Amish family — would I have stayed in the community? I cannot give a definitive answer to this question. For one thing, I’d have to have been endowed with a different nature — one that does not have fundamental questions bubbling up from within. And that begs the “nature versus nurture” question — was it my circumstances that gave me that insatiable desire to ask questions, or was it inherent in me when I was born — who knows? But this I do know. Even if I’d had a good Amish childhood, I imagine that I’d still have yearned for more education. And that alone may have been enough for me to face the loss of community that comes of leaving the Amish. So this is a question I simply cannot answer.
Reading Blush was like reading what my life could have been like, had I not been forced to choose between my two worlds. Even though it was not considered "Plain" for a young Mennonite woman to go off to college when Showalter was eighteen, her parents understood that to hold her back would be going against her nature. In the end, both her family and her community allowed for her to pursue her dreams. It seems that Showalter has managed to live the best of both worlds, something that simply could not happen within an Amish community, even to this day. And so Showalter managed to stay with the faith of her ancestors and reach her potential too.
But that is not what happened in my life. My story, as written in my first book, Why I Left the Amish and now in my new book, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman's Ties to Two Worlds is like the yin and yang with Blush. Even though both Showalter and I were born and raised within Plain traditions and struggled with the strictures of community life, the outcome of our lives and stories are opposites -- she stayed and I left. And yet she has managed to reach so much higher in her life than I likely ever will. She seemed to be following the advice from Thoreau: "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined." She went on to surpass all her childhood dreams in her adult life when she became a college professor, then a college president, and from there she became a foundation executive.
Even though our stories are different, they are both authentic and real. I hope when people read our books, they will be hungering for more true stories of what it's like to live the Plain life. I think this genre's time has come. I would like to think that 200 years from now, there will be at least a few authentic accounts of Plain people's lives, otherwise future generations will have a distorted view of this time in the history of the Plain People.
I will be giving away a copy of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. If you would like your name included in the giveaway, simply leave me a comment here on my blog, stating that you would like your name entered. I will be drawing the name one week from today, October 27.