Subgenre: Religious life, teens, social sciences.
I pretty much picked up this book out of curiosity. Hey, sometimes curiosity is a very good reason to pick a a book. Plus I lived in Indiana for about 16 years, and I knew of the Amish in North Central Indiana, having lived a part of my Indiana years up in Mishawaka, which is not far from places like Shipshewana described in the book. In the opening chapter to the book, the author poses the question for us readers of why we would want to read about the Amish given that they are such a small percentage of the population overall. Here is his answer:
"The Amish are more like most mainstream Americans than almost any other minority in our midst. They share with the majority, and with this author, a common heritage: they are of 'white' European stock, they embrace the Judeo-Christian ehtos, and they come from families that have been in the United States for more than one generation. Also relevant are the ways in which the Amish differ from the majority, namely, in practicing an intense Christian religiosity that suffuses their daily lives, in deliberately attempting to live separately from the larger society, and in refusing to adopt precisely those practices and products of our mainstream society that have come to define and represent America and the Americans to the rest of the world--our cars, our entertainment, our consumerism. This combination of shared heritage and deep cultural differences makes the Amish a particularly significant mirror for the rest of us" (11-12).
The author suggests that often Americans find it easy to dismiss criticism from others who do not share the same Judeo-Christian values, say Arab Muslims or Asian Buddhists, but it is not as easy to be dismissive of the Amish. And, as we learn in the book, the Amish teens are very much like any other group of teens: rebellious and trying to figure out their place in the world. In fact, as I read some of the youth's narratives, they seem very familiar.
For those, like me, who did not know what rumspringa is before reading the book, it is a period that begins "when an Amish youth turns sixteen; at that age, since the youth has not yet been baptized, he or she is not subject to the church's rules about permitted and forbidden behaviors" (11). It is a time when young teens can go on their own to the outside world and experience it. The period lasts until they are ready, if they so choose, to then return from the outside world, be baptized, and become adults in the church. They can return from rumspringa at any time, but it usually runs during the teen years. And therein lies the risk: will they return or will they stay? For the Amish, the risk is that if their kids do not return, the sect gradually dies off. However, they hope that by allowing this time of roaming around that the kids will get some exposure early on and make an informed choice rather than defecting later. As a note, this is not practiced by all Amish, but mostly by old order Amish, and they do have what can be viewed as a good "retention" rate.
The book draws on extensive interviews with teens and parents, which Shachtman then uses to create great little narrative scenes. In addition, the author provides various segments that provide an informational and educational overview of the Amish and their culture, making the book a good, accessible way to learn about them.