This is not just a curiosity piece, like Wagler’s Growing Up Amish. This woman can really write, and piece by piece, she puts together a very hard look at the way Amish treat the disabled, deal with issues of domestic abuse and incest, and the way that intellectualism is stamped out hard, the way you would a dish towel that lands flaming on the kitchen floor.
Before reading this book, I felt a certain…is sympathy too strong a word? Maybe it is…for the Amish. I had read in various places that more and more of their youth were leaving, and I had the impression that one more esoteric group that had struggled to maintain a cultural identity, was being left behind in the relentless march of history. Not so, and now I’m not sure it would be a bad thing if it were true.
Furlong writes really well. She tells us at the outset that she is the one person to receive a free ride at Smith College that year, and that this fulfills a lifelong dream she has had to continue her education. The Amish require their children to leave school after grade 8 in order to work, and the work done by the teenagers is all given (or supposed to be given) to the household fund. Furlong recalls her own longing, as she segues neatly from present to past and back again, as she watched her younger brothers and sisters leave for the school house she had loved, and how completely delighted her overworked, ill-tempered mother had been to have her there for domestic chores.
In the beginning, as I saw the Miller family’s role as an outcast, or nearly outcast, member of their Amish community, I wondered whether Furlong might have remained,as she says most Amish youth do, as a church member of her Amish community, if her family had been a functional one. “If only I didn’t have to live in this family situation, I could be as good an Amish person as anyone”. A friendly member of the community who has a good heart for children, Olin Clara, becomes a mentor and rescuer of sorts, occasionally bringing her over under the guise of needing “help with the little ones”, but when adolescent Saloma arrives, she is greeted by the smell of fresh-baked cookies, and Clara talks to her about her life. Finally it dawns upon Saloma that the real reason Clara has invited her over, again and again, is to show her how a normal Amish household is supposed to function. for awhile, she harbors the hope that Clara will take her in and rescue her from the cruelty visited upon her by the men in the family, and by her mother’s complicity by blaming the victim when she complains.
Saloma’s father was mentally ill and barely bright enough to maintain a home at all, and most of what is done is done by her mother, who is forced to do the backbreaking work of an Amish housewife, as well as the farm chores that are traditionally male. Ultimately, the mother makes a Mestophilian bargain of sorts: her eldest son is permitted to perform monstrous acts of cruelty upon the girls in the family, and the animals (not an easy read, and don’t hand this to your kiddies). In return, he takes on the role of the head of household in all but the most basic decisions, and exercises horrible power over all of them until,to Furlong’s immense relief, he marries and moves to a home of his own.
Here come some spoilers, so if you want to read this and be surprised, stop right here.
Still with me? Okay. Furlong is a thinker (even as a child). She has many questions about the Amish faith and the practices that are largely hinged upon those beliefs. She is not sure she wants to join the church formally, because once she does, she will be an outcast, shunned, and damned to flames of hell should she leave. However, as she passes the traditional age to join, too many questions are asked. She realizes a year later that if she doesn’t join, she will be an outcast anyway, because people really don’t just stick around at that age and NOT join.
She wants to ask questions to help her decide whether to leave or join. “I wanted to walk a spiritual path” that would permit her to ask “fundamental questions”. Since those who join always have a period when they leave the room with the Bishop and other church leaders during the Sunday service, it occurs to her that only by agreeing to join, will she get to go to those sessions and ask her questions. However, it doesn’t turn out that way. The church elders just preach at the upcoming members. “There wasn’t going to be any question and answer session”, she realizes. And this is the real beginning of the end. Every time Saloma persistently inquires about some aspect of faith, she is shushed, as though she has committed a breach of manners. The message is that she should just shut up and DO it, and the metaphor of a grain of wheat being crushed in order to make it part of the flour that can make a loaf of bread–the Amish community–weighs heavily on her. She sees herself as a grain that has escaped the pestle and remained whole, and unwilling to be crushed.
The end left me with some real questions. We are told how she makes her escape, yet 27 years pass that are all but left out. We know that she marries someone who is involved with the place that takes her in, but she has a teenage son as she writes, and yet is staying in a dormitory at Smith, hoping not to become one of the many she has heard of whose marriage dissolves because she can’t bear to leave the college when she is done.
Furlong correctly keeps her story true to the title, and the point of the book is to tell us about her path that lead to her leaving the Amish. She also gives the reader much more information about Amish life in general (including a really interesting system of dating!) than Wagler, who appears self-absorbed as he writes and tells only of his own experiences in a less detailed way, than Furlong, but the ending feels a bit abrupt. I read my copy on an e-reader, which to my frustration cuts off the author page; maybe I would have found some more scraps of how her story turns out there, or maybe she is still at Smith, hanging onto a tenuous marriage, and doesn’t know yet how things will work out.
In any case, if you have any curiosity about the Amish, there is far more in her book than I have written here. I wanted to cheer for her, and for the few who assisted her in her courageous journey. I highly recommend this book (and if you have read my other reviews, you know that I am very stingy with that fifth star).