'Bonnet rippers'? Amish romances are only gaining in popularity

While the Amish themselves may find the books absurd, popular writers in the 'bonnet ripper' genre are selling millions of books.

Two of the genre's most popular authors are Beverly Lewis and Wanda Brunstetter.

What do you get when you cross bodice rippers with Amish fiction?

That’s right, bonnet rippers. In a fascinating exploration of the rise of Amish romance novels, the LA Review of Books coined that apt term that encapsulates the realization of the wildly popular genre.

At a time when most bestsellers lists would have one believe that readers are far more interested in handcuffs and bondage than demure glances and first kisses, bonnet rippers are, well, tearing up the charts. (See our recent piece on the enduring appeal of Amish fiction in the era of “Fifty Shades.")

Their popularity is astounding. According to the LA Review of Books, a new Amish romance novel hit the market every four days in 2012. “Sixty more were published in 2012 than in 2009, and 83 more than in 2002,” writes the Review. It turns out the top three Amish-fiction authors – Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall – have sold more than 24 million books combined.

And folks are paying attention. Media outlets from the Wall Street Journal to Salon to ABC’s Nightline have covered the phenomenon. 

Publishers have taken notice, too.

“If you put a head covering on the woman on the front, you’re going to sell a lot more copies,” Steve Oates, vice president of marketing for Bethany House, told Salon in a September 2012 article. “It’s that simple. Even if the book isn’t about the Amish – maybe it’s about a Mennonite girl or even a young woman living in John Bunyan-era Europe – if you put some sort of bonnet or hat on her, it’s almost like magic.”

One of Bethany House’s authors “made the switch over to bonnet books and doubled her sales,” he said.

Who, exactly, is reading these bonnet rippers?

Not the Amish, it turns out. Most Amish people find the books bemusing at best and disgusting at worst, according to the LA Review. That’s because most of the books are written by evangelical Christian, not Amish, authors. That quickly becomes apparent to any Amish readers in small blunders like the use of bicycles by a character, mistakes in the Pennsylvania German lingo, even book covers depicting a character with her dress on backward.

The Amish also tend to discourage undue attention to their culture, which the books certainly invite, and some may disapprove of the romantic messages implicit in the popular bonnet rippers – especially when the romance is between an Amish character and an English, or non-Amish, one.

Rather, it’s evangelical Christians who are driving the impressive sales of this genre. They’re looking for chaste romantic fiction replete with family values and such wholesome morsels as quilting bees, canning days, and Sundays filled with church and family. 

For some, it’s a heartening reminder that not all readers of romance are pining for erotica and S&M.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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