Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tuesday Book Review


It's time for the first a book review - partly because this was a great book, and partly because I need the practice at being objective.
Rumpsringa: To be or Not to be Amish
Tom Schachtman; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2006

Join Tom Schachtman as he explores the unique lives of Amish communities, and the lessons their culture can teach to an often conflicted outside world. Amish communities are often seen as antithetical to the modern world, and yet they are often spoken of with some jealousy. In the same breath their members may be scoffed as being blindly religious and socially backward, while being respected as hard working and trustworthy. The life of an individual within the community can be as confused and polarized as the opinion of outsiders, particularly during the wilds of adolescence.


In a work that began as research for a documentary film (The Devil’s Playground, Stick Figure Productions, 2002) Schachtman follows a group of Amish teens in the throes of rumpsringa, the running-around time, for nearly six years. Over the course of hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of miles covered between the communities of Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, he uncovers many of the secrets of Amish youth, of the rumspringa tradition, and the power of choosing to be (or not to be) Amish.


The world of an Amish family is one of strictures – dress, social interactions, home d├ęcor, language – all dictated by the ordnung, the rules of the community chosen by its leaders and mandated for all its members. The life of an Amish child is a daily practice of rules and limitations, whether they are learning how and when they may speak to the opposite sex, or to keep their heads covered or suspenders straight. Then they youth arrive at the magical age of sixteen, when they are permitted to disobey the rules. Wildly , flagrantly, and with complete abandon they revel in the forbidden luxuries and temptations of the outside. Well, to a degree.
Rumspringa can be a time of great contradiction for an individual, their family, and as Schachtman found, often the community at large. While teenagers often continue to live at home, they are now permitted to keep more of their wages for themselves, and to spend the money on all the luxuries never permitted in their youth. Jewelry, denim jeans and acrylic sweaters, cars, radios and cell phones suddenly appear in their lives. Alcohol, cigarettes and a whole host of illegal drugs also appear in the wild weekend nights of the rumspringa youth.
As the father of two teenagers Schachtman finds himself dealing with two major questions: how do the Amish deal with the same temptations as the ‘English’ youth, and what makes them decide to give all that up for the confining world of their parents? His research leads him to a whole host of youth that are as representative of American youth at large, as they are of the Amish microcosm. There’s Lydia, who’s first entry in the book comes when she has wildly chosen to keep her paycheck for herself rather than deposit it in the family bank account, spending the entire amount on shoes, jeans and racy underwear for herself. Then there’s Gerald, who we are introduced to in his rented trailer where he has just woken from a cocaine-induced daze to contemplate the risks of death. Not the risks from a bad trip, but the after-death, when his unbaptized, drug-addicted soul will be sent straight to hell. Marlys, at nineteen is late in her rumspringa, and has tired of the shallow partying and superficial comforts and is ready to get married, join the church and be Amish; but she wonders if her boyfriend is ready to join her. Then there’s Johnny, who at twenty-one is feeling intense pressure from his parents to quit running around and join the church, but who isn’t ready to give up his freedom, especially road trips and ball games.


As a parent, Schachtman is sometimes heavy handed with pointing out the lessons these youth can offer. As readers, we are fortunate that he limits the greater commentary to the very beginning and ends of his work. The intermediary pages are filled with richly detailed descriptions of places and people and the words of the Amish youth, themselves. We are fortunate both in the volume of material Schachtman presents and the years from beginning to end. He has had the opportunity to watch these teenagers grow from wild children to young adults, sharing with us their variety of trials and joys as they experience the world.


While his work is not as detached as some documentary reporters’, and certainly not as clinical as a social worker’s, Schachtman does a good job of presenting a balanced character study of each youth. We are also fortunate that he has not limited his work to simply the experiences of the Amish youth in the time of rumpsringa. He has delved deeply into their communities, into understanding what forces have shaped them as they approach this time. The limitations of Amish education, the expectations of family responsibility, and the requirements of the ordnung of children and adults are all detailed. In doing so, he has presented a more complete picture of Amish coming-of-age than one might expect.

This title is available in paperback from Barnes & Noble at http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Rumspringa/Tom-Shachtman/e/9780865477421/?itm=1

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