Driving the Amish by Jim Butterfield, Herald Press,
112 pp. $12.99
The Amish and Their Neighbors: The German Block, Wilmot Township,
1822-1860, by Lorraine Roth, Mennonite Historical Society
of Ontario, 118 pp. $18.
by Dale Bowman
Driving the Amish springs to life in the opening paragraph
with the birth of a baby, Emma. The book's author, who goes by
the pen name of Jim Butterfield, is an experienced newspaper
writer, and it shows. Told in everyday language, Driving the
Amish ($12.99, Herald Press) recounts the details of daily
life among the Amish of Holmes County, Ohio, as they are observed
by one of their drivers.
A second book, The Amish and Their Neighbours: The German
Block, Wilmot Township, 1822-1860, by Lorraine Roth, tells
an old story: emigration to a new world by a religious group.
Written as a history, The Amish and Their Neighbours ($18,
Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario) uncovers the dilemmas
of different religious groups carving out a life in the wilderness
near Waterloo, Canada. The plot includes a detective story: "Why
did [Christian Nafziger] choose the undeveloped lands west of
Waterloo, as his 'promised land'?"
Driving the Amish is a read; The Amish and Their Neighbours
is a study. One twentieth-century Amish phenomenon of note is
how the group has adapted to the introduction of the automobile.
One coping mechanism has been to employ paid drivers. In some
places, the drivers are licensed as taxi operators. Some neighbors
and friends do a sideline business of driving the Amish. Some
driving for the Amish is simply neighborliness. Whatever Jim
Butterfield's real reason for driving the Amish, he has found
a rich method of documenting their day-to-day existence. He tells
his story through vignettes, on everything from birthing, to
farm work, to religion, to weddings, to
funerals. This kind of breadth might suffice, but in Driving
the Amish Butterfield even includes a short, tangential chapter
on the Amish and income tax.
Butterfield shows himself throughout as a writer who is a good
watcher. Since the book opens with a birth, I expected it to
close with a funeral. It doesn't; the funeral appears in the
next to last chapter. The book closes with preparations for a
wedding, and the final scene is one of the well-watched details
that make Driving the Amish a good read. ``When I turned
to go, there beside the window was a long row of shoes--all sizes,
men's and women's. And there with a stained cloth was a four-year-old
girl, busily rubbing black polish all over them.''
Lorraine Roth's The Amish and Their Neighbours could use
a bit more sifting of its wealth of detail. At times, I felt
as I read as if a wheelbarrow filled with everything from deeds
to deaths had been dumped in my lap. But if your family tree
includes a Beck, Jutzi, Hunsberger, Shantz, Gingerich, Nafziger,
Eby, Lichti, Erb, Schultz, Schwartzentruber, Brenneman or Kropf,
then the history is worth sifting through. I am certain this
book will be the definitive work on the
area known in Canada as the German Block. Mixed in with the literal
descriptions of building types, listings of occupations, and
minutes of meetings are such gems as this from the section
titled "The Contribution of Women in the New Settlement":
"An anonymous emigrant had the following advice: 'Let
every man who has a wife and who intends to settle in Canada,
bring her with him; and let him who has not the article and can
get it good, and of a suitable temper, etc., provide himself
before he starts; but mind, she must neither be a fine lady,
nor one who cannot help, or has no resources within herself.
. . .'"
While such advice may be hilarious in 1999, The Amish and
Their Neighbours amply documents that the right kind of wife,
like the right kind of attitude, could make the difference in
a tough land. The wilderness that Christian Nafziger found was
not turned into tillable land and a democratic society by people
of a retiring sort. A toughness was required to wade through
the bureaucratic nightmares involved between groups with different
languages and customs. It
takes a toughness to work through the book, too, but the story
is worth it. Finally, I have a quibble with each book.
Having grown up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as tourism
exploded into a multi-million dollar industry, I may be oversensitive
to the notion of the Amish being cute. But Driving the Amish
feels like it is aimed at a tourist market: the Amish as the
quaint ones. Then again, Herald Press probably wasn't looking
for a tell-all. But maybe they should be. If we don't tell our
own darker stories, the reporters of ABC's "20/20"
and their ilk will.
The Amish and Their Neighbours could have benefitted
from sharper pinpointing of its audience. The book will only
be read by historians, history buffs of the area around Waterloo,
or genealogy fanatics. But the book contains short insets with
good, solid information on everything from Amish Mennonites to
the products of the maple tree. If intended for a general audience,
the story would benefit from a focus on personalities instead
The Amish and Their Neighbours unearths the nitty-gritty
of the politics and actual costs of carving a life from the wilderness
in the New World. Driving the Amish accumulates daily
bits to build a history from an outsider's perspective on the
world's most stable Amish community in the twentieth century.
The Amish and Their Neighbors is a broader, richer study
than Driving the
Amish, but a tougher read. One book goes by the nightstand;
the other belongs in the study or den.
Dale Bowman, a Chicago journalist, writes the "Outdoor"
column for the Chicago Sun-Times. He and his family attend
Evanston Mennonite Church.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, April 1999