Saloma Miller Furlong has an amazing story. The little Amish girl on the cover of her memoir and the Smith College graduate on the back cover represent two worlds. These two photos illustrate a life journey that has covered, so far, a relatively short distance in time and space, but a huge one in world view.
Naturally the reader wants to know the story between the covers. How did Saloma escape a dysfunctional family in a closed community and find happiness as a professional woman living in New England?
Since being Mennonite is central to my own life story, and since Mennonites and Amish were once the same Anabaptist faith and retain some distinctive traits among Christian groups, I was happy to receive this book from the author and to read it with care.
The book tells the story of both worlds–the Amish childhood and the contemporary professional woman working at Amherst College. Most readers will come to the book because it promises secrets of Amish life that are often hidden in romantic images popularized by mass media. The truth is that Amish families contain some extraordinary resources for collective support but that this support is not equally distributed to all. And they have their share of sin and shame hidden behind closed doors.
Strong boundaries between the Amish and the outside world are maintained by language like Hochmut (for high, prideful, independent living) and Demut (for low, humble, community-focused Godly living) and by a theology that focuses on eternal punishment for being Hochmut. Inside the community, there are more complex layers of social control. Saloma suffered under one of these.
If she had broken her leg or their house had burned down, the whole community would have gathered round to sympathize and to work collectively to restore the innocent victims to wholeness. However, if someone (such as her father) was thought to be lazy or simple-minded–or was depressed and just looked lazy or simple-minded–the community had other explanations and reactions designed to turn this person and his entire family into a cautionary tale for the edification of others. Furlong describes the result this way: “The Amish way was to ‘shame’ the person into working harder and helping himself–and likewise, if someone was simple, he should just ‘smarten up.’ So instead of trying to help Datt (Pennsylvania Dutch name for Father) improve his situation, the people in the community shamed him. He was still included in all the community events, but the Amish have a way of both including and isolating someone at the same time. . . .the pressure to conform never ceases, and so in this way, the person–a person like Datt–feels like an outsider within the community all his life.”
Furlong shows a depth of comprehension of the positive and negative in her life that probably would not have been possible had she written her memoir earlier. I have a sense of deep forgiveness and calm when I read even the worst things in the book–especially when her brother abused her.
Which brings up another issue, one that memoirists face directly when they write about family members, especially those still living. How tell your own truth when it sheds a very bad light on someone else? I criticized Rhoda Janzen in this review blog post, which started up a storm of comment, for displaying gratuitous condescension toward her sisters-in-law in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.
But what if the criticism is not gratuitous but central to the plot? What if it “outs” a brother who apparently has gained good standing within the Amish community? What if it tells old secrets about a father after he is gone?
Clearly, Furlong has had to face these questions before approaching a publisher. She has had to prepare heart and mind for whatever reaction she might receive from her family, the Amish community, feminists, and anti-feminists.
I think she hits the mark between honesty of detail in describing the abuse and non-romantic appreciation for the good times just about perfectly. This is no small feat. She has Mary Karr’s maturity without her hilarity. She has Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s nostalgia for rural life without her rosy life story.
Furlong’s book arrives on the scene at a time when memoirs from Anabaptist (Mennonite, Amish, Hutterite) women are sweeping North America. Ankita Rao, of Religion News Service did not include Furlong in her survey of the scene, but if you are interested in reading about three other books, you can find summaries here.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in a clear-eyed look at Amish life told by a woman who has maintained the best of her tradition outside the church.
As for any deficits in the book, I had only one disappointment (and a few minor editorial quibbles which I won’t mention). The disappointment centers on wanting to know more about the current Saloma Furlong and more about the psychological, spiritual, and emotional journey she took after she escaped the Amish community. The material about childhood is important and well crafted, but how did she create her currently thriving life? What were the obstacles, ingredients? Who were the other helpers along the way? How did she meet her supportive husband? How did she not end up with an abusive partner? How did her Amish upbringing help and hurt her in establishing this new life?
Perhaps Saloma Furlong will write a second memoir that both traces the steps to independence and then leads her back again to the place where she is now–free, forgiving, and more than forty. She has bucked the odds a thousand different ways. How did she do it? She seems to understand that readers will find her Amish past interesting, but perhaps she minimizes her current life because it seems too ordinary. I don’t think it is.
So let’s ask for Volume Two!
Readers: how many Amish or Mennonite or Hutterite memoirs have you read? What makes them interesting (or not) to you?