I first heard about Joe Mackall at an event at Ohio State this past summer with Dinty Moore.Â I like what I heard and so picked up both Last Street Before Cleveland and [amazon-product region=”us” text=”Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish” type=”text”]0807010650[/amazon-product].Â I had some interest in the Amish as I had once worked for a State Senator who represented the area in which the book was set and had has some interaction with Amish issues.
It turned out to be a fascinating book and much more than just a story about how the Amish live.Â Sure, Mackall offers real insights into the way the Swartzentruber Amish that are his neighbors live; what they are like as people, friends, neighbors, etc.
But it is more than that.
For those unfamiliar with the subject here is some useful background from the book’s website:
Joe Mackall has lived surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish community of Ashland County, Ohio, for over sixteen years. They are the most traditional and insular of all the Amish sects: the Swartzentrubers live without gas, electricity, or indoor plumbing; without lights on their buggies or cushioned chairs in their homes; and without rumspringa, the recently popularized â€œrunning-around timeâ€ that some Amish sects allow their sixteen-year-olds.
Over the years, Mackall has developed a steady relationship with the Shetler family (Samuel and Mary, their nine children, and their extended family). Plain Secrets tells the Shetlersâ€™ story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuelâ€™s nephew Jonas finally rejects the strictures of the Amish way of life for good, after two failed attempts to leave, and his bright young daughter reaches the end of school for Amish children: the eighth grade. But Plain Secrets is also the story of the unusual friendship between Samuel and Joe. Samuel is quietly bemusedâ€”and, one suspects, secretly delightedâ€”at Joeâ€™s ignorance of crops and planting, carpentry and cattle. He knows Joe is planning to write a book about the family, and yet he allows him a glimpse of the tensions inside this intensely private community.
If I had to pick a word to descirbe Mackall’s writing it would be “honest.”
In our day and age the concept of “real” has become a cliche; part of a hokey phrase like “keeping it real.” But there is something very real about the way Mackall writes and the stories he tells.Â The relationships he explores and the way he communicates them reflects both an honest curiostiy but also a deep respect for the people involved.
Mackall gives the reader a basic overview of the this particular Amish community and helpfully provides context for the larger Amish culture.Â He does this with care by intentionally avoiding sensationalism.Â But at the same he xplores his own feelings about this unique community and what this says about our culture and theirs – and how the two interact. This deep respect for his subject matter and a continuing sense of introspection makes for a much deeper story.
Those with an interest in the Amish are probably already well aware of Plain Secrets.Â But if you have ever wondered about Amish life this would be a great introduction – not because of the technical details but because of the real sense of how they live.Â But really, anyone who enjoys well written narrative non-fiction would enjoy this engaging book.