1:2:14 Growing Up Amish: A Memoir, a book review

I was surprised at how much I not only enjoyed, but identified with Ira Wagler in his memoir Growing Up Amish. When I think of the Amish, the quick thought is a rule-bound religious sect whose members live in farming communities stuck in the 19th Century. Plain folk rejecting modern technology--telephones, electricity, gasoline-powered vehicles--so completely we pigeon-hole them as hopeless throwbacks, proving their faith by Sisyphean struggle at backbreaking farm labor.

And yet, Amish farming communities show remarkable endurance, sustainability, and mutual support.

[book cover]

Mr. Wagler's memoir is a classic coming-of-age story. Once he turns sixteen and enters his Rumspringa years, he's rebelling against an Amish world that trapped him, kept from joining the larger outside world--the world of the "English," as the Amish put it.

A popular misconception asserts Rumspringa is when Amish condone teenage "wildness," their sons and daughters tasting the vices of the outside world. But Wagler points out this is an outsider's sensational imagining of what really happens: Amish teens, like teenagers everywhere, "run around" (the Pennsylvania Dutch meaning of Rumpspringa) with their friends. Vices are optional and unusual.

For eight years or so, however, Wagler manages to stay wild and leaves his Amish community only to return as a prodigal son an amazing four times or so--even after being excommunicated for his behavior--before he finally quits and stays on the outside. The "rules and restrictions" of the Amish social contract are more than he can accept as an adult.

But what elevates this memoir above many is Wagler sees beyond the conflict with his father. He gains a nuanced picture of the parent he leaves and whose heart he breaks. He confides his father is not a good farmer. No, his father's real passion and gift is writing: He edits, writes, and publishes Family Life, a magazine by the Amish for the Amish with thousands of subscribers. It's goes without saying Ira knows where he got his wordcrafting genes.

Yes, I started reading Growing Up Amish, expecting an armchair visit to some place with odd inhabitants, but found Ira's coming-of-age, absent most of the details, but not all, not unlike mine. The irrevocable split with the old man, followed by independence, then the maturity that brings even gratitude for one's father, and ultimately respect for how one becomes a man and somewhat like his father.

Growing Up Amish: A Memoir by Ira Wagler, Tyndale House Publishers, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-4143-3936-8

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

Also, a flash fiction, "Ylena Thinks Nyet," is at Cigale Literary Magazine.

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