Bookmarks Issue: 

To Be or Not to Be Amish

A-RumspringaMost teenagers have a wild phase. The Amish tradition of rumspringa codifies such adolescent rebellion: at the age of 16, Amish youth become exempt from the strict rules, or ordnung, of the faith in order to decide whether to join the outside, American world or be baptized into the Amish Mennonite Church. That approximately 80 percent choose to eschew drinking, baseball, pop music, and technology in favor of the rigorous life of faith and family testifies to Amish convictions and traditions. It’s also a reminder that, with only eighth-grade educations and a fleeting, often drunken indoctrination into American culture, Amish youth might be ill prepared to make such a complex decision.
North Point. 286 pages. $25. ISBN: 086547687X

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Shachtman is like a maestro, masterfully conducting an orchestra of history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and journalism together in a harmonious and evocative symphony of all things Amish. … The interviews artfully illustrate the high degree of vulnerability of these inexperienced, indoctrinated youth as they wade out into the American mainstream eager to experiment with their newfound freedom." Richard Horan

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"The author’s reporting is so scrupulous and open-minded that the mainstream reader can almost appreciate the punitive nature of the Amish practice of shunning, where, to ‘keep the church pure,’ the community turns its collective back on a member who has broken rules, which include everything from disobeying biblical law to using too much electricity to run farm equipment." Karen Karbo

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Shachtman’s wonderfully rich portrait and history of the Amish as a people and a faith helps to show why one of the strictest religious communities in America is better at holding a flock than some of the most of liberal." Donna Freitas

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The strength of Shachtman’s book is the candor he summons from his subjects and his sketch-artist description of a strange place and its people. … The weakness of the book is that there isn’t a clear narrative, and there are too many faces to keep track." Cheryl L. Reed

Pittsburgh Trib-Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His book is as much about the Amish faith and way of life in general as it is about rumspringa. It is as good an introduction to Amish culture as the average reader could ask for." Roger K. Miller

Critical Summary

Tom Shachtman, a documentary filmmaker, culled the 300 pages of Rumspringa from more than 400 hours of interviews he conducted during and after the making of his 2002 film, Devil’s Playground. Much more than a salacious look at teens gone wild, the book is a primer on the fiercely insular Amish culture. Critics praise the author for passing scant judgment and allowing the characters to tell their stories. Although he does weigh in on the misogyny and educational deficits of Amish culture, Shachtman mostly allows readers to think for themselves. If the chorus of voices and thematic, rather than geographical, chapters overwhelm at times, it’s the price of thorough research—one most reviewers are glad to pay for this "rare look inside a closed society" (Chicago Sun-Times).