Driving through Wisconsin's Amish country in search of a rocking chair, my wife, two young daughters, and I came upon a neat little farmhouse with a sign out front advertising handmade furniture. We pulled in. Two young girls, by the looks of them the same ages as our daughters, were out playing in the yard dressed in the Old Order style – bonnets, long dresses, aprons. While my wife and I went to tour the shop, our girls accosted the two sisters. Later, carrying the rocker to the car, we found the four girls had bonded. There were tears as we left. Since that day, we have idealized the Amish in our household.
So you can imagine my shock upon reading the following in Tom Shachtman's fascinating documentary-style book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish: "As the party gets into full swing, and beer and pot are making the participants feel no pain, a few Amish girls huddle and make plans to jointly rent an apartment in a nearby town when they turn eighteen.... Others shout in Pennsylvania Dutch and in English about ... having a navel pierced or hair cut buzz short. One bunch of teens dances to music videos shown on a portable computer; a small group of guys, near a barn, distributes condoms."
However, jolts to my psyche aside, I fully expect to see this book short-listed next year come literary awards time.
Shachtman is like a maestro, masterfully conducting an orchestra of history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and journalism together in a harmonious and evocative symphony of all things Amish. He follows the lives of numerous young Amish in the midst of the tumultuous "Rumspringa" years.
Rumspringa is a Pennsylvania Dutch word meaning "running around." For the Old Order Amish, Rumspringa begins at age 16 and ends when the individual agrees to be baptized and to abide by the unwritten rules, the ordnung, of the Amish community. Amish are Anabaptists, a sect of Christianity that denies the validity of infant baptism: They believe only adults can make informed decisions about their own salvation. The purpose of this period is to allow adolescents the freedom to experience the outside world with the hope that they will see the evil in "English" society and decide to return to the fold.
Of course there is the risk that the individuals will never return, but that risk is assumed because, absent Rumspringa, "there would be a higher probability of loss, of many more Amish youth succumbing to the lure of the forbidden, perhaps even after marriage and baptism, with resultant defections from the sect and havoc within it," writes Shachtman.
The interviews artfully illustrate the high degree of vulnerability of these inexperienced, indoctrinated youth as they wade out into the American mainstream eager to experiment with their newfound freedom. Almost from the start, the reader is tempted to feel that Rumspringa is a setup. Inculcated from Day 1 to believe in eternal damnation for those who "go away," it's hard to imagine that Amish youth have the skills or positive outlook necessary to adapt and succeed beyond their own communities.
Not surprisingly, more than 80 percent of Amish youth return to the church. But that may be changing.
According to Amish historian Joseph E. Beiler, the Amish way of life was traditionally agricultural and didn't really get a reputation for being an "old-time religion" until after the Civil War, when changes in fashion and technology forced them to add more restrictions to the ordnung. For example, the Amish need always be in contact with the earth, which is why they do not allow rubber wheels on their buggies. But in a highly industrialized world, manual labor cannot possibly compete with farms using modern-day machinery. Today, only about 20 percent of Amish males make their living from farming. The loss of farming as an occupation has put a huge strain on the family because men who would normally be close to home have had to "work away." More than 50 percent of heads of household work in factories.
In his final analysis, Shachtman invokes the theories of the great psychologists Abraham Maslow and Alfred North Whitehead to help him sort it all out. Considering Maslow's fourth hierarchy of needs, he writes: "But my experience among the Amish demonstrates that, at least for this group of Americans, 'esteem' needs are not universal. Adult Amish, and youth returning to the fold after Rumspringa, frequently express their utter disregard for whether or not the outside world esteems them as a group or as an individual."
As for Whitehead's ranking of values, he notes that where Americans in general are confused by their myriad choices, the Amish remain content because the church has chosen for them. In sum, the Amish are more satisfied in life than other Americans; however, the larger world is exerting tremendous pressure on their way of life. Shachtman avers: "The Amish are going to change, whether they want to or not."
For my own part, I just hope that little farmhouse with the sign out front and the bonneted girls playing in the yard will still be there – for my granddaughters' sake.
• Richard Horan is the author of two novels, 'Life in the Rainbow' and 'Goose Music.' He teaches composition at the State University of New York at Oswego.