Beyond the Plain and Simple, by Pauline Stevick

For anyone who shares my interest in the plain people, this is a very helpful book that is also a delight to read. The subtitle is A Patchwork of Amish Lives, and that is accurate. Pauline Stevick lives in Amish country, is married to a man who teaches classes about the plain people at a college there, and over many years has observed the community closely and has gotten to know many Amish families. However, she is not herself a scholar of Amish life, and so the stories she collects are not in service of some greater agenda, but just accounts of the various encounters over thirty-plus years which have taught her something about Amish thinking and social behavior.

The chapters are short, about ten pages each. The stories cover various aspects of community life, beginning with admirable traits that require some explanation for outsiders looking in, and then moving on to traits that are more mixed. Stevick is neither a fan nor an enemy of Amish life, but a sort of interested fellow-traveler, being an Anabaptist but with a far more modern lifestyle. Some of the most valuable passages in the book come when she is reflecting on what her own tradition has gained and lost by embracing modernity where the Amish rejected it (or, at least, most of it). There is also some surprisingly good material about her theological differences with them, what they mean and how they play out.

If you’ve read some accounts of Amish life and would like something a bit more probing, this is a good choice. There are first hand accounts of a wedding, several church services, a family who tries and fails to establish a farm, a rebellious son who comes back to the church, an Amish intellectual, even an Amish vacation community in Florida. There is no greater purpose to the book beyond collecting together some stories and reflections by a keen, interested, and sympathetic observer. And that, to me, is the book’s strength.

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