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Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish

Review

Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish

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.

Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish
by Joe Mackall

  • Publication Date: June 15, 2007
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press
  • ISBN-10: 0807010642
  • ISBN-13: 9780807010648