Amish romance novels

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First aired on Day 6 (10/12/12)

The wild success of the 50 Shades of Grey series has rejuvenated interest in erotic and romance novels. But is there an alternative for readers with more, uh, modest fantasies?

Apparently, Amish romance novels -- often dubbed "bonnet books" because they usually feature young ladies wearing bonnets on the cover art -- can sell in the hundreds of thousands. One book in particular, The Shunning by Beverly Lewis, published in 1997 and considered to be the front-runner of the genre, has sold more than a million copies.

rebeccas-choice.jpgJerry Eicher was born in St. Thomas, Ontario, and grew up in the Amish community, and has since become a successful Amish romance novelist. He initially wanted to write thrillers, but discovered the high demand for these books. He's got the formula down pat now having sold more than 100,000 titles.

"The romance in my books is much plainer [than mainstream romance novels] because the Amish themselves exist that way," he told Day 6 recently. "The longings, the desires that you have will be internal. They will not be expressed more than lightly -- holding hands, perhaps a kiss towards the end of the book, and not too many of those..."

Marketing VP Steve Oates, whose Bethany House Group is among the leading publishers of bonnet books, says almost every one revolves around similar narrative themes.

"[They're about] young girls coming of age in the Amish community really having to make two major decisions. And that is, will they join the church -- in other words, will they be subject to the rules of the Amish community -- and will they marry? And who will they marry?"

The gentle, chaste courtship scenes appeal to many readers because they harken back to a simpler, less complicated time, Oates says.

"I think for a lot of people it's taking them back to a time when there was a shared understanding of what the morals were, of what values were, of what was right and wrong."

Setting the stories in Amish communities also allows the writers to keep their characters in the modern era, and give the plot the added drama of having to choose between a life of independence outside the community and the family and faith they've always known.

But do the Amish themselves buy these books? Oates and Eichler both agree that the Amish aren't particularly interested in these romance novels. In fact, many of them dislike the genre.

"The Amish really want to be left alone, they really don't want the attention," Oates said.
Eichler, who is one of the few Amish romance novelists with actual Amish roots, says his relatives claim they're totally opposed to what he does.

"Some of that may be a reaction against me because I come from the Amish and they will always be more resistant to somebody from the faith talking about their culture."

So if the Amish aren't buying Amish romance novels, who is? Oates said the books are most popular in North American rural communities and are purchased primarily by conservative, "family-oriented consumers." And the books keep flying off the shelves.

"They are more popular than just about anything else [in Christian fiction]."