Neither a scholarly treatise nor a vilification, an idealization nor an exposé, Joe Mackall’s PLAIN SECRETS is a narrative that explores one man’s relationship to an Amish family and, by extension, a community.
Mackall, who lives in Ashland County, Ohio, befriends the Shetler family: Samuel, Mary and their nine children (names changed by the author). Over the years, living in close proximity to the Shetlers, Mackall develops as close a relationship with the family as an Englisher might be allowed. What emerges is the peace, beauty and goodness of the culture, as well as the disturbing questions he finds himself asking about legalism, the rights of women and the protection of children. His friendship with the family also helps him learn more about himself. “I have chosen…to mine the raw material of their everyday lives in search of everyday truths,” writes Mackall.
It’s an immersion into the world of the Swartzentruber, the most traditional and strict of the Amish sects. The Swartzentruber refuse to use reflective signs on the back of their buggies, leave school after the eighth grade, bathe only once a week and carry no insurance. The women are not permitted to wear bras and are not allowed to shave their underarms or legs.
However, there are plenty of surprises. This conservative sect shops at Wal-Mart and loves the Dollar Store, and may enjoy junk food such as Milky Way candy bars and potato chips. Although they don’t practice “rumspringa” like many other Amish sects, the Swartzentruber Amish let their teens go on “dates,” in which a teenage boy and girl spend the night together, side by side, in her bed. Mackall skillfully weaves other information throughout the narrative: the history of the Swartzentruber, the organization of the church and the ordination of ministers, and Amish perceptions of African Americans.
As part of his exploration, Mackall follows the story of Samuel’s nephew Jonas, who leaves the Amish to join the English community. The reader will be alternately intrigued, sympathetic and repelled at how Jonas handles his new-found “freedom.” To abandon Amish life, Mackall shows through Jonas’s attempt, is to encounter immediate problems. How do you get a Social Security number if your parents refuse to let you have a copy of their marriage license? How do you find a job when you’ve never gone to school past the eighth grade? The Amish community’s culture and rules, Mackall realizes, make it difficult for a child to leave.
Living in close proximity to the Shetler family offers Mackall positive insights as well --- an appreciation and attention to the weather, a realization that he doesn’t need as much as he perhaps wants. Mackall, a professor of English and journalism at Ashland University, beautifully pens one particularly haunting scene, which finds him rhythmically tossing butternut squash to Samuel in his truck as they get ready to go to an auction.
“Perhaps it’s because the weather is fair and the season is autumn, but suddenly I experience a paroxysm of joy --- sheer, sharp unadulterated joy. I’m suspended between two worlds, an outsider in an outsider’s world. I’m here with friends who consider themselves separate from the world but woven into the earth, while we all throw fruits of the earth to one another: seeds planted, sown, produce reaped and cleaned, soon to be sold, bought, and eaten. Toddlers play, teenagers laugh, a friend loses his hat, my back aches, and through it all the beauty and heartbreaking brevity of this life pierce me with their stunning certainty.”
Other scenes are not so prosaic. After enjoying his rides in Samuel’s buggy and telling others about them “as if I were playing a small part in some quaint drama most people could only watch”, he must re-evaluate his thinking after another family’s buggy is hit by a car and an eight-year-old girl is killed. This leads to a written personal tirade, which ends with, “Is sticking with your sacred buggies more important than the sanctity of human life? Can’t you take care of your children?” Readers will have further concerns when Samuel takes his daughter to a veterinarian for medical treatment or, like all Swartzentrubers, refuses to immunize his children. Mackall’s questions as he ponders the less appealing side of Amish life are respectful, vulnerable and thought provoking.
Threaded throughout Mackall’s book is Samuel’s belief in God’s will and how it affects his world. “He talks about God’s will the way he reports how much it rained the night before or that one of his cows has the milk disease. God’s will is like gravity --- it is rain and dirt and sun and snow and wind and fire and every other elemental thing. It is what it is --- no matter what we do.” Despite Mackall’s own disagreement with Samuel’s theology, he finds himself strangely comforted by it when a disabled uncle dies.
It’s these conflicting perceptions that provide the necessary tension that holds Mackall’s narrative together. Readers will come away with new perspectives about Amish life and some disturbing questions.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on May 15, 2007