Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review - Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, Joe Mackall

Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish


Joe Mackall

Category: nonfiction, Amish

Synopsis: Mackall tells of his friendship with a conservative Swartzentruber Amish family, the nephew of which has just left the Amish.

Date finished: 5 February 2013      

Rating: ***½ 

Comments: Yet another book that tries to give an honest look at the Amish while divorcing Amish life from Amish religion. The two are the same to the Amish, and trying to separate them does a disservice and simply isn’t factual. I got the feeling that Mackall, a journalist, thought he was writing a hard hitting Dateline expose here, but it was very average. Average in writing and average in information. I learned very few new things about the Amish way of life and very much about Mackall’s biases toward it. He, like most English, focuses on the freedoms the Amish don’t have that we do have: we can drive, use electricity and birth control, dress sexy, wear red, be capitalists, reject God. They can do none of these things, therefore, they must be “deprived.” I believe the word for this is ethnocentric.
     He goes one step further and says that we English idealize the simplicity of Amish life, hereby cutting any good feelings about Amish life off at the knees. I don’t know how anthropologists work, but I would assume that one must put aside his own prejudices in order to fully learn the culture being studied. For instance, when discussing Jonas’s excommunication after leaving the Amish, Mackall is angry and judgmental. How can one be angry at a society for enforcing its rules? Jonas knew the consequences; his parents knew the consequences; Mackall knew the consequences. But Mackall insists on holding this rule up to English society standards and calling it heartless. Another instance, the English view that the Amish are denying their children of a proper schooling by only giving their children an eighth grade education. If the Amish are anything, they are practical. An eighth grade education is enough to run a household, run a farm, and to raise a family. Their education is, for the most part, apprenticeship and modeling. Amish children are educated for their life, not for the English life. There is no need for advanced degrees—or even a high school diploma.
     Lastly, I didn’t find this book all that well written. At the end, it seemed that he reached page 200, figured he had enough pages, and just tied up the whole Jonas leaving the Amish subplot with: Jonas got his driver’s license. The end.
     I did learn one very shocking tidbit I’d not read elsewhere: these Swartzentruber, the most conservative of the Amish societies, have dating rules more lenient than most English families. On a date, a young man goes home to a young woman’s house, and they lie in bed (fully clothed) all night and talk. Even the Victorians were more strict about propriety than this! It was sort of charming.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Not really, no.

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