Paul Gaus: Tony Hillerman of the Amish
Paul Gaus's Amish murder mysteries offer non-Amish a window into a mysterious but appealing society.
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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.