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Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amishby Joe Mackall
Synopses & Reviews
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 "running-around time" 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 Shetlers' story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuel'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 bemused—and, one suspects, secretly delighted—at Joe'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.
These and other stories from the life of the family reveal the larger questions posed by the Amish way of life. If the continued existence of the Amish in the midst of modern society asks us to consider the appeal of traditional, highly restrictive, and gendered religious communities, it also asks how we romanticize or condemn these communities—and why. Mackall's attempt to parse these questions—to write as honestly as possible about what he has seen of Amish life—tests his relationship with Samuel and reveals the limits of a friendship between "English" and Amish.
Journalist Mackall writes about his surprising friendship with an Amish family trying to live a simple life in a complex world.
A journalist writes about his surprising friendship with an Amish family trying to live a simple life in a complex world
Plain Secrets tells the story of Joe Mackall's Swartzentruber Amish neighbors, the Shetlers, using their lives to paint a nuanced portrait of this most traditional Amish sect.
Mackall does the job beautifully, painting an intimate portrait of the family that leaves the reader feeling humbled by the common thread that's woven into all of us.
--Sarah English, Cleveland Magazine
Prose as graceful as it is unsentimental . . . Mackall doesn't sensationalize, romanticize, or condescend.
--Brigid Brett, Los Angeles Times
The book points to a difficult truth: A religious community is bound to be freed. Mackall explores this paradox with rare honesty and insight . . . and] achieves what he promises.
--Tom Montgomery-Fate, Boston Globe
Mackall describes the details of family, farming and church life with sympathy, accuracy and good will . . . His particularistic description of one family is a welcome addition to what has often been a sociological literature.
--Levi Miller, Christian Century
About the Author
Joe Mackall is author of The Last Street Before Cleveland. A professor of English and journalism at Ashland University, he is coeditor of the journal River Teeth and has written for NPR's Morning Edition, the Washington Post, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other publications. He lives near Cleveland, Ohio.
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