An Outsider's Look Inside Amish Community Writer Joe Mackall gained unprecedented access to one of the most conservative Amish communities through his neighbor Samuel. In his new book, Plain Secrets, Mackall chronicles the tightly knit society of Ohio's Swartzentruber Amish.
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An Outsider's Look Inside Amish Community

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An Outsider's Look Inside Amish Community

An Outsider's Look Inside Amish Community

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I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS: And I'm Michele Norris, and this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

SEABROOK: In the new book "Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish," author Joe Mackall takes a ride in a horse-drawn buggy with Samuel, Mackall's Amish neighbor. They clip-clopped down the road to Home Depot. Samuel is building a new house for his family. And as Mackall looks on, he imagines whole sections of the hardware store disappearing, off-limits to Samuel and his sect of the most conservative of the Amish, the Swartzentruber Amish. The whole electrical section gone, no power tools, no appliances, no fancy front doors. Carpet is out, so are tile and linoleum. And the only paint color Samuel would ever buy would be white, gray and dark blue.

Joe Mackall joins me now to talk about his book. Hello, Mr. Mackall.

JOE MACKALL: Hi, Andrea. How are you?

SEABROOK: Good. You have had unprecedented access to the Swartzentruber Amish through your neighbor, Samuel. Describe to us how your relationship and trust began, the beginning of your book.

MACKALL: Okay. The very fist time we met, it was because I saw a toilet sitting up by the street. And Samuel was in the process of de-Englishing his house because he bought a non-Amish house and had to make it an Amish house. And we were just waving and getting to know each other. And then, not long after that, Samuel's mother died in Canada. And she was going to be - we're going to have the funeral and burial and everything in the next few days.

And Samuel's wife, Mary, was pregnant at the time and due any day. And even the Swartzentrubers are allowed to take the Greyhound bus for travel, but there is no way he could get up on the Greyhound bus and get back before his wife was due. So I volunteered to drive him to Canada. Samuel got permission from his bishop and we took off. We had a lot of time to talk on the way up there. That was the beginning of our relationship.

SEABROOK: You make the point in your book that mainstream American culture tends to view the Amish in one of two ways - either this romantic notion of a bygone era, agrarian culture or as kind of a backwards bunch of separatists. But instead of debunking both of these, Joe Mackall, it seems that in your book, they both exist in you, that you have really conflicting emotions about the Amish.

MACKALL: I am seriously conflicted about the Amish, in particular, the Swartzentruber Amish. I love the fact that the family is together all day. I love the fact that they care for the land, that they kind of eschew so much of what we insist is necessary in contemporary America. I love the way they stick together as a community, and, well, let the community trump an individual. And yet, there's also a part of me that doesn't want the individual to be trumped.

It bothers me tremendously that they only go to school until the eighth grade. I worry very much about the women, the young girls. I mean, I have two daughters. I would not want that life for them. The man is clearly the authority, the supreme authority in that house. And if the man is a kind, generous, sweet, loving man, then he is all of those things with absolute authority. And if he is the opposite of all of those things, if he is a thug or a mean or a disturbed person, he is all of those things with absolute authority.

SEABROOK: Joe Mackall, describe, if you can, how the Swartzentruber Amish are different from other Amish that people listening may have seen.

MACKALL: There are so many different orders and sects of Amish that you have to be careful not to generalize. They're certainly not a monolithic people. But some of the more liberal orders will allow, for instance, battery- powered lights on the back of their buggies. These New Order are allowed to drive tractors down the road. The Swartzentrubers cannot even have stuffed furniture in their homes. They're the only Amish who still milk by hand. The Swartzentrubers bathe only once a week on Saturday nights. And even the other Amish make fun of them for this.

SEABROOK: You also described how this community can be stifling. For instance, you described Jonas, a young man who leaves the Swartzentruber Amish.

MACKALL: Yes. Jonas is Samuel's nephew, and the first in Samuel's family to leave. And I should say that it's much tougher to leave as a Swartzentruber than it is, for instance, as a New Order Amish, because this social chasm between a Swartzentruber and our English modern world is gigantic. And so they retain about 90 percent of their kids, whereas the New Order, where the chasm is much narrower, they only retain about 45 percent of their kids.

SEABROOK: So you're saying the kids, it's harder for - it's sort of logistically almost, and emotionally harder to leave when the modern world is so much different than what they have been used to?

MACKALL: That's right. And remember, too, that they're leaving with an eighth-grade education. And, you know, 21st century America is not the ideal place to have an eighth-grade education. And that is with all the - all orders of Amish. You know, and a lot of these kids leave and then come right back because they have no idea what to do.

SEABROOK: What are the long-term prospects for the Swartzentruber Amish?

MACKALL: The Amish population has doubled in the United States and Canada in the last quarter century. And the Swartzentrubers are - they're only five percent of the Amish right now, but they have, by far, the most children. And because they retain 90 percent of them, they're growing. They're about the only Amish who still spend most of their time farming. A lot of the more liberal Amish have had to find, you know, open stores and kind of play to the tourists. But I think things are pretty bright for the - the future is pretty bright for the Swartzentrubers.

SEABROOK: Joe Mackall, thank you so much for talking to us.

MACKALL: Thank you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Joe Mackall is the author of "Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish." He's also a professor at Ashland University in Ohio.

NORRIS: Mackall writes that across the country, people who live around Amish communities tend to either love or loathe them. You can read an excerpt of his book at our Web site,

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