The old ways

Brigid Brett is a columnist for San Diego's North County Times.

MENTION the Amish to most folks and it conjures up images of the barn-raising scene in the 1985 movie “Witness,” Joe Mackall writes in his new book, “Plain Secrets.” Some may also think of rumspringa, that period of wild-oat sowing when “Amish kids go nuts: smoking dope, driving cars, having sex, ignoring their parents, generally partying their brains out.”

These two extremes, Mackall contends, reveal more about what outsiders think of the Amish than about who these conservative Christian people are. In prose as graceful as it is unsentimental, the Ashland University professor of English and journalism tries to set the record straight -- at least about his neighbors, the Schwartzentruber Amish of northern Ohio.

Mackall’s acquaintance with the Schwartzentrubers -- perhaps the most insular and conservative Amish order, who are mocked by their more liberal brethren for hand-milking cows, taking baths only once a week and eschewing all things “English,” or non-Amish -- began 16 years ago when a family moved in nearby and began “de-Englishing” the house. “I came home one day to find a toilet near the street and an outhouse being built. Electrical wires were cut and removed, pastel-colored wallpaper peeled off walls, linoleum stripped and discarded, carpet ripped off the floors.”


Their relationship takes an unusual turn when the head of the household wins permission to have Mackall drive him to Canada for his mother’s funeral. From that morning, when Mackall is the only outsider to break bread with hundreds of black-hatted men and unadorned women, the two families’ lives become inexorably intertwined.

When the man’s 9-year-old daughter dies, Mackall is saddened -- and humbled by how the family is cared for. “[T]he community descended on the ... house and farm,” he writes. “Men and boys ... performed all the chores, milking the cows, feeding the chickens, chopping firewood.... Women and girls cleaned ... cooked meals, and stocked the pantry.” They also helped pay tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills. As the bereaved father reminds Mackall, his church is all the insurance he needs.

But Mackall sees this same church demand conformity when a young man decides to go. Maybe so few leave, he speculates, because it’s tough to make it in the world with only an eighth-grade education and no Social Security card or proof of citizenship.

Mackall doesn’t sensationalize, romanticize or condescend. But after an Amish child dies when a buggy is rear-ended by a minivan, he rails, “[I]f you’re going to stick with buggies, shouldn’t you at least make them ... so children are not forced to stand up in the rear with nothing but dumb luck between the backs of their heads and the surface of the road?” Yet he realizes that these same people who are committed to their flimsy buggies are also wedded to the land, their families and their communities -- and to peace.