Contemporary Amish fiction gains a following

Beverly Lewis, a Colorado author, started the Amish fiction genre with her 1997 book “The Shunning.’’ Beverly Lewis, a Colorado author, started the Amish fiction genre with her 1997 book “The Shunning.’’ (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press)
By Eric Gorski
Associated Press / July 17, 2009
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DENVER - The Christian book business, optimistic that a little literary escapism might be an antidote for readers in hard times, is turning to bonnets, buggies, and bloodsuckers.

Even as Christian publishing suffers during the recession - one study found net sales for Christian retailers were down almost 11 percent in 2008 - several publishing houses are adding or expanding their fiction lines with both the tame (Amish heroines) and boundary-pushing (Christian vampire lit).

The undisputed industry leader is so-called Amish fiction - typically, romances and family sagas set in contemporary Amish communities. They’re a surprise hit with evangelical women attracted by a simpler time, curiosity about cloistered communities, and admiration for the strong, traditional faith of the Amish.

The success of the genre has spawned not just new Amish fiction authors but spinoff series about other cloistered communities. If you want to sell it, as one literary agent put it, put a bonnet on it.

But not all new Christian fiction is prairie wholesome. There’s building buzz - and some trepidation - about upcoming titles that bring a Christian perspective to tales of vampires and the undead.

Publishers, authors, and others gathered in Denver recently for the annual International Christian Retail Show agree that there’s a growing audience for Christian fiction that both comforts and challenges, now more than a decade after the apocalyptic “Left Behind’’ series took Christian fiction out of obscurity and onto Walmart shelves and the New York Times bestseller list.

“If you look at ‘Left Behind,’ the moon turns to blood and one-third of the people die,’’ said Karen Watson, an associate publisher at Tyndale House, which published the series. “Or you have people with bonnets on drawing water from the well. It just tells me there are a wide range of things you can talk about, and Christian books can be a lot of things.’’

Christian fiction often has mimicked successful genres, including romance, sci-fi, and legal thrillers. But in Amish fiction, Christian publishing has something it can genuinely claim as its own.

Much of the credit goes to Beverly Lewis, a Colorado author who gave birth to the genre in 1997 with “The Shunning,’’ loosely based on her grandmother’s experience of leaving her Mennonite upbringing to marry a Bible college student. The book has sold more than 1 million copies.

Lewis tapped into a fascination with the Amish, who base their morals on a literal interpretation of the Bible and are known for their plain clothes and rejection of modern technology.

“For every lineup of Amish women at a gathering of any kind, you’ll always see one of them that has her hand kind of on her hip,’’ said Lewis, who grew up a Pentecostal preacher’s daughter in Pennsylvania Amish country. “That’s my character. She’s the one that’s pushing boundaries.’’

Wanda Brunstetter, who is probably No. 2 to Lewis on the Amish fiction roster, said readers are looking not only for escape but also lessons during tough economic times.

“People are learning from the Amish novels how they can simplify and set their priorities straight,’’ Brunstetter, who writes Amish romance novels.

Lewis’s publisher, Bethany House, which specializes in historical fiction, has published Puritan and Shaker stories.

Next spring it will release fiction about the Amana Colonies of Iowa, where German pietists lived communally until the mid-1930s, said Steve Oates, vice president of sales and marketing.

“Historical fiction is a great way to have a nice clean story when a certain set of values didn’t seem out of place,’’ Oates said.

Mindy Starns Clark, an author of mysteries scrubbed clean of foul language and premarital sex for a Christian audience, set her latest novel, “Shadows of Lancaster County,’’ in Amish country.

“It’s got a buggy on the cover,’’ said Clark, who emphasized that she picked the setting before Amish books became a Christian publishing sensation. “But it’s also got genetic engineering. It’s definitely not your grandmother’s Amish novel.’’

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