Paul Gaus: Tony Hillerman of the Amish
Paul Gaus's Amish murder mysteries offer non-Amish a window into a mysterious but appealing society.
Amish fiction? Don't laugh – it's been a hot growth category for some time now. It seems that non-Amish readers are particularly eager to enjoy fiction that offers glimpses of the sect's simplicity, conviction, and stress on forgiveness.
Amish romance stories are perhaps most common, but Paul Gaus, a retired chemistry professor, has been writing Amish murder mysteries since 1997, set in the Amish country of Holmes County, Ohio, where he lives. Originally published by Ohio University Press, Gaus's books are now being republished by Penguin as “The Amish Mystery Series.” The first title in the series, "Blood of the Prodigal," which addresses shunning – the Amish practice of exiling disobedient church members into the mainstream society – was released last month. All six of Gaus's books will be released by Penguin, one a month, from now through February. Monitor contributor Brendan Pelsue spoke with Gaus recently.
How did you start writing Amish mystery novels?
I have lived in Wooster, Ohio, for over 33 years. Just south of us, in Holmes County, we have the largest Amish settlement of any location in the world. While I was teaching chemistry, I took an interest in writing about Amish society. And I always enjoyed mystery novels. So I took a trip out to New Mexico to meet with Tony Hillerman, who wrote many novels about Navajo culture. And I thought that I would write mystery novels like Tony Hillerman does, but I would set them among the Amish of Holmes county.
How do you go about choosing your stories?
"Blood of the Prodigal," like all of my stories, it is written to illuminate Scripture. In particular, its written to illuminate one of the Biblical Scriptures on which Amish people base their lifestyle. A key Scripture for "Blood of the Prodigal" is the 139th Psalm. Many of the interactions in "Blood of the Prodigal" are based on transactions of repentance and forgiveness. There’s comfort in the 139th Psalm for people who face repentance. That’s what an [Amish] bishop tries to do with shunning – restore a person to a community of faith.
So is there a spiritual component for you in writing these books?
There is. I am a Christian. I am a Christian, and I understand Scripture the way Amish people do. I don’t practice Amish lifestyles in any way. But I thought it would be greatly important to show with allegories and story lines how Amish people use Scripture to order their lives and guide their lifestyle choices. They live the way they do because they think that’s what the Scriptures teach. And my books have always been Scriptural allegories for Amish life.
For instance, in “Broken English,” the theme of that story was Amish pacifism and non-resistance. "Broken English" is the story of a man who was tempted to seek vengeance for the death of his daughter. He must decide whether he will live according to his pacifist convictions, or kill the man who murdered his daughter. It, too, was based in Scripture.
I find new understandings of Scripture every time I read them. Writing about them makes that even doubly so.
Who is your readership?
When I first started writing, I thought my readership would be quite broad. And I suspect that will be true once these Penguin editions are advertised and marketed at a national level. But so far, my readers have been for the most part older people who have been interested in readings from the Scripture, and middle-aged to older people who want to read stories that are not particularly salacious, or charged with sexuality, or laced through with vulgarities. My stories are rather calm, and tame, and decent stories, although they are murder mysteries. They are still what I regard as decent literature that any Christian could be comfortable reading.
But what I’ve found as I travel is that people of all faiths are reading my books. What they appreciate is that I am addressing a serious issue in my fiction. They are not just frivolous mystery novels. They have “redemptive value,” as one person said it to me.
Interesting. How do you tailor what you write to the needs of that readership?
I did light editing of all the stories so that Penguin could publish the books in a way that would be agreeable to the Christian Booksellers Associations. This involved a few things. Once in a while the sheriff in my stories would use intemperate speech – a damn or a hell or something like that – and we took that out of the story. And in two of the stories there were mild references to somewhat extravagant sexual practices. And these aspects of the stories were not essential to the novel, so I agreed to edit them out. And so now Penguin is bringing out a whole new set of the novels that are identical to the original, but wouldn’t cause a believer to blush in reading them.
I think Americans are ready to read serious literature that is not laced with vulgarity. It’s as if thriller-fiction has risen to the point of a grand spectacle. And my books do not go in that direction at all. My books are tempered, reasoned, quiet, thoughtful – all things other than spectacle. And yet they address a very important problem, and they address the Christian lives that Amish people live.
When I first started writing, I thought my murder mysteries needed a little touch of modern criminality. But a few tawdry words here and there are not necessary to put across an exciting story. So I was happy to make the revision.
Why do you think people are interested in the Amish? Why are you?
People consider Amish to be rather mysterious. They live in reclusive locations. They have a separate society. They evidently believe unusual things, because they dress in old ways and they drive buggies. In Holmes County, for instance, where we have so many Amish people, the biggest industry is tourism. Americans flock to Holmes County to find out: What are Amish people like? Why do they live that way? Where do they get their instruction for lifestyle?
Everywhere I go to sign books, I double my appearance time just answering questions people have about Amish. The curiosity is just endless. And since Amish people are starting to move into all parts of America now, we’re going to see even more interest in Amish things. When I take family and friends on a driving tour of Holmes County, they are astonished to see how Amish people live on their farms. They cannot seem to get over how different it is from what they know. Once they have seen it, they want to know more. That’s what I’m trying to do with my books – show “English” people why the Amish live that way. (The Amish call the rest of Americans English Folk, or Yankee Folk.)
The Amish are pacifists, and very private people. Do you know how they feel about being portrayed in your novels, especially in a way that is connected to violence? Or are they not particularly aware of your work?
Many Amish people will not take an interest in my stories simply because they are murder mysteries. But the drivers of the bookmobiles in Holmes County tell me that my books are always checked out. And the few reviews of my books that have appeared in local newspapers have been very favorable and said my depiction of Amish society was very accurate.
There is one other story I would mention to you. An old Amish fellow borrowed "Blood of the Prodigal" from a neighbor, and he read it and liked it, and passed it around to friends and family. And he asked her if there were any more to read. And she gave him a second book, and he brought it back and said, “These are such wonderful stories, and to think, they’re all true.” She explained to him that the stories were not true, they were works of fiction. And he started to get very upset and angry and stomped out of the house and she did not see him for several weeks. He came back eventually and apologized to her for his behavior. He said, “I am sorry I was angry with you, but the bishop in my district does not permit us to read fiction. So I was in a lot of trouble.”
I was sorry that happened to him, but as a writer, it meant a great deal to me. It meant that a real Old-Order Amish fellow found my stories so realistic that he thought they were true. It means my depiction of Amish lifestyle is very accurate. And I like that very much.
In fact, that’s the whole point of my stories. To illuminate Amish culture for English people who want to know more.
Do you ever have doubts about portraying the Amish in such a public way?
Yes, I do. Certainly there are aspects of Amish life that one worries about. Their lives are dangerous. They live on peasant farms. They drive buggies on the highways. Their farms are not always sanitary. They live old-world lifestyles. But Amish people are the most peaceful, generous, and loving groups of people I have ever met in America. And their devotion to Scripture is so complete – they humble themselves so completely, they are submissive to one another in the way the Scriptures teach. And I don’t know of any Christian community that is taking the Scripture more to heart than the Amish do.
But, and this is a big but, they do sometimes consider the commands of Scripture more absolute and dictatorial than they do consider them to be a guidance for life. When the Scriptures say, “Be ye separate,” meaning, “Be separate from nonbelievers,” they take that as a command from God, not a suggestion. And they go off and form separate societies, and maybe that’s extreme.
And maybe they take the Scriptures authority to hold too strongly to the absolute authority of a bishop or a husband. As a result, their society is entirely patriarchal. And this might seem a little bit old-fashioned to the rest of us. And sometimes it seems to me that a lot of their rules for life are based more on old European traditions than genuinely on the assumptions of Scripture. So I guess the best thing to say is that they are devoted both to the Scripture and to tradition. And I think that in some ways this holds them back.
They are devout Christian, and wonderfully peaceful people, but maybe they have too many rules based just on the traditions of their ancestors.
Aside from that, Amish people are happy, well adjusted, friendly, fun-loving, industrious, generous, peaceful – they have wonderful lives in their own community. I do admire them. I could never live Amish myself. It would be too hard. There are very few English people, I think, who could make the transition to an Amish lifestyle.
Finally, and this is a question I’ve always wanted to ask a mystery writer, do you know how the story is going to turn out before you start writing?
Sometimes I do, yes. Sometimes I do not. The one I just finished ["Harmless as Doves"] is about remorse and forgiveness. I wrote that story bringing characters and plots together in order to show people with various degrees of remorse and with differing capacities for forgiveness. And it wasn’t until I was maybe two-thirds of the way through the story that I realized how I should end it. And that worked out very nicely, I think.
Brendan Pelsue is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass.