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May 6, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Click here to read steamy excerpts from Amish romance novels.
Jayne Tate has brown eyes, long brown hair and a nose for a story. She is happy with her life, happy with her boyfriend and even happier with her job as a hard news reporter for a big-city newspaper — until she’s fired. Jobless and forced to come to terms with her father’s recent death, Tate must quickly take solace in the only place she can: Amish country, of course.
If this sounds like the strangest of plots, that’s because it is. Tate, like most good-girls-gone-Amish these days, can be found in Plain Jayne by Hillary Manton Lodge. The book is the latest in a series of Amish- and Mennonite-themed romance novels that take place in the Amish country of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County but somehow rival even vampires in popularity outside of it.
The formula is perfect: A humble gal meets a humble guy, they might or might not kiss (but they certainly don’t have sex), and then said guy asks said gal to live the Plain life with him forever.
The answer is always “yes.”
“Inspirational romances have definitely picked up in the last (few) months, particularly the Amish novels,” says Kristie Elliott, owner of Nancy’s Trade-A-Book II in Columbia. “Romance in itself is escapism, but when you bring in the Christian angle, it’s relying on faith a lot, especially in today’s economy.”
Known as “bonnet books,” these G-rated romances have made literary celebrities of names such as Beverly Lewis and Suzanne Woods Fisher, authors who were once skipped over as readers skimmed the inspirational fiction section on their way to meatier romances with Fabio on the cover.
But if there is one lesson the Amish trend is countering, it is the idea that sex sells. In a popular culture unusually fascinated by the simple ways of the Anabaptist faiths (see: Witness), a multi-million-dollar romance industry is a logical next step. One-fourth of the top 20 bestsellers on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association list of fiction have Amish themes. The genre’s holiest name, Beverly Lewis, has sold more than 12 million books according to TIME Magazine and made it to the top 10 on The New York Times’ paperback best-seller list.
The Amish faith, started by Jakob Amann in 1693, follows the ideals of traditional Christianity while elaborating on its rules. Along with faith and abstinence from sin, its Plain people value living simple (usually attained by refusing the use of technology, including buttons) and dressing plainly (really, no buttons allowed). What the novels lack in intercourse, they make up for in wise Amish proverbs, smatterings of Pennsylvania Dutch, Biblical character names and an endless supply of bizarre anachronisms.
Despite an unexpected automobile or two, Fisher’s novels are some of the best evidence of the Anabaptist fad in existence — as well as some of the best researched. Fisher’s introduction to the Plain folks began with her grandfather, one of 11 children in a family of Old Order German Baptists. Although she drives a car, it’s an old one, and though she’s currently speaking over a phone, she sounds wistful about the idea of not needing one.
When the trend hit around a year ago, Fisher was in the right place with the right interests at the right time. Her career in fiction began with a phone call from her agent, who, with Fisher’s background in mind, asked her if she’d be interested in the genre. Today, she has a contract for 10 more Amish books — seven novels and three nonfiction books — and an Amish radio show that began in March.
“(Publishers are) rushing to this market,” Fisher says. “And I don’t feel competitive, but I do feel that we shouldn’t just slap stuff out there. Be true to these people.”
She’s not pretending. As Fisher begins to describe it, her novels’ world of romance and faith without sex and technology sounds more and more, well, heavenly. “For me, it’s a vehicle to share my faith,” Fisher says. “I don’t believe that we have to become Amish, but I do think that we have a lot to learn from them.”
Today, when she is not visiting Lancaster to collect stories from her future characters, Fisher does most of her research by snail mail: There’s not much conference calling when it comes to the Amish.
“Some of it is definitely a response to a very speeded-up world,” Fisher says of the genre. “Life is just getting faster and faster, and we’re getting overwhelmed. And who else but the Amish shout the quieter, simpler life?”
The 50-year-old Californian is a mother of four. Although it sounds like she’s smiling on the other end of the phone, she’s very serious about her Christian faith. The number of friendly references she makes to “the good Lord” serves as proof — as if she needs it. Although her children often tease her about making her living off Amish books, she meets their eye rolls with simple facts — the Plain truth, if you will.
“Sometimes romance novels are pretty graphic, almost at times pornography for women,” Fisher says. “(With Amish novels) there’s this modesty, and it’s more about the words and the subtle gestures than this common thing where they meet and then they’re in bed after a few hours.”
The more time Fisher spent in Lancaster, the more like her characters she became. “I didn’t realize until I got back to the Philadelphia airport, but I saw some girls in shorts and tank tops and was almost shocked,” she says.
In the fast-paced sexual world of the modern romance novel, the Amish trend, understand it or not, is making the case for substance over smut. Whatever Barry White song is playing in the background of other books, The Choice’s soundtrack is more like “Amazing Grace.” If you don’t know how to say “I love you” in Pennsylvania Dutch, you soon will (“Ich liebe dich”), but you won’t find the adjectives “heaving” or “ample” anywhere they aren’t immediately followed by the word “bounty.” And that’s the point.
“I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons behind the rise in sales of those books here is because there’s a lot of Amish community here,” Elliott says of sales at Nancy’s. “We have a lot of Amish customers come in here, actually.”
But are they buying Amish romance novels?
“You’d be surprised,” Elliott says with a laugh. “They really do.”