Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Englisher!

Our book today is The Englisher, the second volume in Beverly Lewis’ “Annie’s People” series set in Lancaster County and featuring the old order Amish who live there – which you’d think would make this a specialty-niche production to end all niche-productions. Most people in America have little or no idea who the Amish are, most of those who do would rather read insurance charts than fiction about them, and of course the Amish themselves have no use for such ‘modern’ things as books (unless the book is the Bible, of course, or perhaps a farmer’s almanac). You’d think if for some arcane reason Beverly Lewis (a pleasant-faced mother and grandmother who’s written over 70 books) was seized with the desire to write about the Amish, her book would sell only in certain tiny gift shops in Pennsylvania and Iowa.

And you’d be wrong. Hoo-boy, would you be wrong! On the contrary, Beverly Lewis is what’s known in publishing circles as a phenomenon: her books, all adorned with warm, pastel covers, form the nucleus of the ‘religious fiction’ section of every bookstore, Christian or Barnes & Noble, from Boothbay Harbor to Sausalito. Her earnest, leadenly-written tales of the trials and tribulations of one tiny, dying, ignorant, inbred sub-sub-sub-sect of Christianity routinely sell in the tens of thousands, which means any reader – even one who’d never actually read one of her books – must ask: what the Hell is going on here?

It’s not like she’s a secret firebrand of unconventionality. In every one of her books, the Amish are depicted with great affection and reverence, despite the fact that they’re in reality a hidebound, repressive, intensely stupid people. In the first two volumes of “Annie’s People,” for instance, we meet young, artistic, quietly charismatic Annie Zook, who’s made a promise to her father to abandon her painting and devote herself to her people, to worship and motherhood. Annie is fairly well-drawn as Lewis’ characters go (usually the closest you’ll get to character individuality is one person dropping the ‘g’s from some words whereas other people don’t)(when this happens, it’s never meant as a sign of ignorance – ignorance as a subject is given a wide berth in Lewis’ novels – necessary, when writing of a sect that hates the intellect, represses the imagination, and stops all schooling at grade eight),yet at no point in either of this book or its prequel is the promise itself called wrong-headed, much less sulfurously evil. Always the Amish are portrayed as a community where a simple, grassroots-style Christianity is very much alive – struggling constantly with the intrusions of ‘moderns’ all around it, but still hewing to the eternal patterns of the Good Book: simplicity, devotion, and some good old-fashioned sexual slavery, as when Esther ponders the foul mood her husband Zeke has been in lately:
How will our children soak up the love and acceptance of their heavenly Father if they don’t see it in Zeke?

She brooded during the meal, only glancing at her family twice before Zeke called out his desire for pie and more coffee. She leaped up, responding as she knew he wished her to.

About Esther, Lewis tells us: “Her greatest joy came both from the Lord and her children, in that order” – and if we’re tempted to laugh the Monty Python logical absurdity posed by that sentence, we should pause and remember that this woman is a millionaire many times over on the allure just that kind of writing has to countless thousands of ‘religious’ people buying books in this country. Like I said, it’s not a foolish thing to ask what those people are finding in these books that they aren’t even looking for in Trollope.

Lewis’ novels are mild, certainly. They contain no obscenities, hardly any violence, no multi-layered ideas, and every single character is always striving to feel really good about every single other character. (there are no cranks, in other words – no Irish need apply). Innumerable scenes set at kitchen tables are limned in the uniform light of nostalgia, and as we all know, nostalgia works just fine even on readers who’ve never sat around a wooden table peeling potatoes and talking about the menfolk. Characters – precocious young Annie included – are shown to live by much simpler time-tables and rules than those that govern our hectic world. Their joys and anticipations are much, much simpler:
With the warmer days came the anticipation of Good Friday’s fast day. The membership would contemplate the Ordnung prayerfully, and, if all were in one accord, they would rejoice by taking communion as a group, followed by their twice-yearly foot washing. Shortly after that would come the start of baptismal instruction. Annie found herself looking often at the calendar, counting the days till she and the other applicants would meet with the ministers. She knew she had to be certain of her resolve before making the commitment to study, a thought which kept her awake at night.

And I think that’s the key to the appeal of these books: they serve up, chapter after chapter, just exactly the kind of lie millions of brainless Christians want desperately to believe about themselves, their world, and their faith. These brainless Christians (as opposed to the smart Christians, constantly on their toes in a modern society that’s outright gunning for them, always agilely looking for ways to serve and learn as their Savior instructed – but needless to say, smart Christians make no appearance whatsoever in Beverly Lewis’ novels … they’re as unwelcome as blacks, gays, and Jews. Indeed, they’re beyond unwelcome – none of the characters in these book even imagine their existence, and our author never disturbs their mental isolation)(what I wouldn’t give to see a series of novels about smart Christians – but of course, such a series wouldn’t sell) take great comfort from the image of a place somewhere in the depths of Lancaster County where Christianity is practiced as it should be – simple deeds, simple faith, and the women leap to get their husbands more pie. Lewis supplies that world, shakes it a little for her mild dramas, then burnishes it to a gentle glow.

But it’s pernicious, because this is not pick-and-choose Amish: we get the whole package.  The "Englisher” of the title is Ben Martin (in their ignorant, clannish way, the Amish refer to anybody who isn’t Amish as English, like it was still the goddam 17th century), a sexy young thing who’s interested in Annie but not so much in twice-yearly foot-washing. And she’s interested in him – but again, it’s mild, it won’t last, it’ll certainly never supplant the repressive expectations of her people. Ben is of course a thoroughly gelded male character (in that he’s identical to every other male character in every other piece of “Christian fiction” ever written), but even so, the scene at what passes for this book’s climax, when he’s standing in the Zook attic and finds a carefully-wrapped painting by Annie that displays all the talent she’s mothballing for her faith, there’s a sentimental punch that will surprise even a seasoned reader.

A forlorn quest even to read a book like The Englisher, really: it was never meant to be enjoyed – or even understood – outside its target demographic of cowardly, sentimentalizing Christians. And no doubt Lewis’ legion of fans would say I’m exactly missing the point, that the best part of “Annie’s People” and all the other novels is that the Hollywood twist of the pretty young girl giving up her repressive faith in order to run away with the cute boy doesn't happen – that instead, people stay and grapple with faith and its demands.

Maybe so, but you can certainly have too much of a good thing. Glorifying a sect trapped in collective religious psychosis might be a bit far to go, in order to avoid Hollywood.

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