Read any Good Books lately?
nIntercourse publisher releases another novel and a very personal garden almanac by Amish authors. Signings are Saturday. BY JO-ANN GREENE, Books Editor
You've seen the Amish "reality" shows: "Amish Mafia," "Breaking Amish," "Amish in the City."
Now, get real.
Two new books by mother and daughter members of the Old Order Amish community offer glimpses into what really goes on among the Plain people.
Mother Linda Byler, a Franklin County resident, is a popular novelist whose fiction seems truer than some people's fact. Her seventh novel, "Fire in the Night," Book 1 in the new Lancaster Burning paperback trilogy, combines romance with drama and suspense, tempered with reflection on the Amish way of life.
Not every Amish character is portrayed as meek and saintly, as in much of the genre. Some are described as "bossy," even "ill-tempered," just like the rest of us.
"Because she's an insider, she doesn't need to tiptoe around," using flattery to win access, is how Phyllis Good, senior editor at Good Books in Intercourse, explains this refreshing frankness.
Byler's daughter, Laura Anne Lapp, of Cumberland County, is a first-time author. Her chatty and engaging garden almanac, "An Amish Garden," is a month-by-month stroll around a saner, more grounded world. Radishes and raccoons can be problematic, but the garden's pleasing symmetry and potential for sustenance are still deeply satisfying, she makes clear.
In a handsome hardcover, lensman Jeremy Hess, of Lancaster, plays peekaboo with Lapp, her husband and three young boys. Hess never poses them, but fades out and crops his photos when necessary to keep them on the right side of their bishop. The techniques enhance rather than detract, putting the focus on lavish images of soil, plant house, barn and landscape yet subtly acknowledging their stewards.
Publishers Weekly just gave the book a starred review.
nIn a recent interview at the offices of Good Books, the women talk about their unusual life in letters.
While Amish formal education ends at the eighth grade, these two spent additional years in the schoolhouse as teachers, before marrying. (Mom notes with a twinkle in her eye that this daughter was "dangerously close to being an old maid," not having married until age 25.)
Byler's vocabulary shows how much she loves words. (Amish women try to be delicate "while procuring a second doughnut"; Sarah observes "the alacrity with which the woman kept sampling succulent slices" of ham, she writes.) She's also adept at plotting and portraying characters.
The novelist began her writing life as journalist in 1990, submitting her church district's letter to the Amish newspaper Die Botschaft and gaining a following for her humorous family stories.
"Mom's letter was always more interesting than the others," attests her daughter, one of the "characters" who was often written about there.
But Byler's avocation became a vocation in 2003, after her husband's steel construction business failed.
"We lost everything when it went under," she says, including their eight-bedroom house. "I wanted to do something to support my family." Their youngest child was 5 at the time.
The usual avenues for Amish women needing to earn money are quilting and baking, Byler notes, but she claims she isn't good at either.
Initially, she self-published her books and sold them herself, out of her garage. The Goods -- Phyllis and husband Merle, who is Good Books' publisher -- learned about them after Byler convinced their Intercourse bookstore staff to carry those early novels. The staff liked and recommended them to Good.
"I agreed that she had an unusual ability to create characters (especially women), and she knew what part of a story to tell," Good says.
"Since these first books were based on her life, we wondered if she could successfully write stories that were imaginative," Good says.
Byler could. She took up their ideas and had many of her own. All she was lacking, according to Good, was confidence and a quiet place to work away from the bustle of children and grandchildren and the pressure of several part-time jobs.
She now spends two days a week at a public library, writing her stories longhand in spiral notebooks, Byler says. No outlines or even character lists necessary. Her publisher calls her "disciplined" and notes she never misses a deadline.
nByler's daughter seems to be following in her footsteps, though Lapp says, "I never thought I would write a book."
Lapp's prose is brisk, clear, and conversational as befits her book. She only dipped a toe in the publishing waters a few years back, when Good Books asked Byler to come up with a cookbook to complement her series of novels about Lizzie, a food-loving young Amish woman. Byler appealed to her five daughters. (She also has two sons.) "Dutiful eldest daughter," as Lapp labeled herself, came through to help her with "Lizzie's Amish Cookbook."
Lapp's still a little anxious about how the book -- and its photographs -- will be received in her community. "I don't want to offend anyone."
But "in our own church group, people would not have done this," Lapp says, referring to her family allowing a photographer into their daily life.
"You mean you're canning, and there's a man in your kitchen?" she says they ask. Amish women rarely associate closely with men outside their families, she explains.
Hess was "perfectly respectful and nice," and as the months progressed the family got used to having him around -- and ignoring him. Lapp had the right to reject any photographs she did not want published.
"The book, it is liberal for us, and I'm sure there are people who won't be pleased; they aren't all pleased with mine," her mother says, referring to her own books.
Bishops were not consulted prior to publication. "They would have said no. They always say no," Byler notes.
Byler says she, at least, plans to "keep writing, as long as the books sell."
nIt's not surprising that both women are writers because both are avid readers, favoring Oprah's Book Club selections.
Byler's love of reading started in childhood with the Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. Among her favorite contemporary authors are Toni Morrison, Richard Russo, Alice Munro and especially Elizabeth Strout.
Lapp prefers the classics, including the novels of Edith Wharton and Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." She's also a fan of Tasha Tudor's coffee-table books, featuring her New England home and garden.
Asked about Amish attitudes toward literature, the women admit that secular reading is discouraged.
And in regard to their own books, "I would rather the public read them than our own people. I don't want to offend anyone. But a lot of them read them. Some admit it, and some don't," Byler says matter-of-factly.
Good notes that a lot of copies are sold to Amish stores.
"This is the literary world she lives in, and yet she can remain authentic to the people and setting she's writing about," Good says about Byler.
Good Books specializes in books about Mennonites and the Amish, but these two are the only Amish authors it has ever published, Good says.
The authors will spend Saturday on a book tour of Lancaster County. They will appear from 10-11:30 a.m. at Ken's Educational Joys, 1930 Division Highway, Ephrata; noon-2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 1700-H Fruitville Pike; and 2:30-3:30 p.m. at Gordonville Bookstore, 275 Old Leacock Road, Gordonville.