Even though I do write some of my own Amish-themed fiction, I'd never read anyone else's, despite the genre's immense popularity. I just don't want my writing influenced by someone else's, so I've never read anything by some of the marquee names of Amish fiction or the dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of other writers who have jumped into the genre in recent years. I'm excited that so many new people are finding Amish culture interesting, but I am sometimes troubled by the flood of often unresearched fiction-masquerading as non-fiction material that could potentially make it into print (I do read excerpts from time to time)
Author Stephanie Reed asked me last summer to read her advance copy of The Bargain. I relented because A) it's always flattering to be asked, B) the book is set in Plain City, Ohio, a settlement I know well, and C) it's loosely, loosely based on a true story.
SIGH, but with working on my own writing and preparing for the arrival of a daughter, I just couldn't find time to plunge into much of anything over the summer. But, really, The Bargain is a fun read that tells an interesting story and gives you some realistic glimpses into Amish culture. Part of my problem is that I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to these types of books, I've been writing about Amish culture for over 20 years and I sometimes try too hard to glean reality from fiction.
Amish fiction is flooded with "fish out of water" storylines, but what makes The Bargain work is when it is set: the early 1970s. For instance, there was one scene in the book where Betsie, the main Amish protagonist, a young woman around 20, uses an automatic dishwasher for the first time. The scene set in 1990 or 2000 would have been implausible. While insular, the Amish today don't live in locked bubbles. Anyway, Betsie is just mesmerized by the swishing water and hum of the dishwasher. Similar scenes unfold with other things like a washing machine. The scenes are fun but I would have found myself rolling my eyes if the book had been set today. But I found myself thinking that in 1970 when dishwashers were still a relative novelty, a young Amish woman encountering one for the first time may well have been an eye-opening experience.
SUMMARY:, in short, we have a young Amish woman - Betsie - who finds herself having to learn the craft of harness-making. An Amish relative (Nelson) was to take over a harness business but the Vietnam War draft found Nelson serving in the domestic war from (something common at the time for conscientious objectors). So Betsie heads to Hilliard, Ohio to a non-Amish harness shop to learn about the trade before taking over Nelson's business. Today, Hilliard is a suburban miasma of cookie-cutter houses, chain stores and Columbus commuters. I suppose 40 years ago it's plausible a harness shop would still have been in its last gasps there. But that's me obsessing again, so back to the book.... Betsie struggles to mesh with the non-Amish family that owns the harness shop who are all being impacted by the turbulent times that 1970 dishes out. The Mom is trying to hang on to her youth, Betsie tries to bond with their stormy son (Michael) who is caught up in the violence at Kent State, and a younger sister who is the last vestige of innocence. All the while the storms churn around the family patriarch who seems helpless to stop any of it. Meanwhile, Betsie is dealing with her own family turmoil as one by one her close family is drawn into an evangelical orbit and pulled away from the Amish and Plain City.
I would have loved to have seen the evangelical angle fleshed out more because that is actually a very realistic storyline, but that's probably not something a fiction book would be able to tackle well.
Anyway, this should be the first in a series and I look forward to reading more. I'll give this book a solid B-plus. The Bargain is available from Amazon here.