PUBLICATION DATE: JULY 01, 2012
here are some days when Julie Charlton would love to just leave her hectic life behind and start over in a much less stressful world. When her sister-in-law, Susan, announces that their family has the chance to take part an Amish reality television show, Julie can’t help but wonder if this is God’s answer to her prayers. The idea of becoming Amish for the entire summer and giving up PTA meetings and all the other trappings of her life couldn’t be more appealing. But once Julie, Susan and their children arrive on their farm in Tennessee, the reality of their situation kicks in. Not only had they not entirely thought through how “easy” and “simple” life would be with a wood-burning stove, a ringer-washer and limited air-conditioning, but they find it hard to leave behind their old attitudes. Susan has a book deal resting on the success of this show, and can’t stop striving for perfection, driving her own daughter, as well as Julie and her children, nearly over the edge with her insistence that they must appear to be a perfect family at all times. Living in such close quarters with Susan makes Julie feel all the more inferior for her lacklustre cooking and housekeeping attempts. If Susan has all of these gifts, why can’t she have at least one? The pressure doesn’t seem to have lessened at all in their simplistic Amish retreat. Can Susan and Julie learn anything from their “Almost Amish” experience, or will they return to their lives in California with their attitudes intact and unchanged?
While I love Amish fiction, I’ve found that Christian women’s fiction can often be a bit hit or miss. I’ve never read a women’s fiction novel from a Christian perspective that I’ve absolutely adored, and I’ve come across a few that have been a bit too preachy for my taste. This considered, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Almost Amish. How would it blend these two highly popular genres? This definitely isn’t your typical Amish novel, despite what the cover might suggest, and in fact, I’d seriously hesitate to even call it Amish. The main characters rarely interact with anyone from the Amish faith, but the book does address a lot of the issues that feature in the Amish genre: slowing down, searching for simplicity and a deep focus on family and relationships. Amish fans may be a little disappointed that this book isn’t quite as Amish as they’d like, but I think that Kathryn Cushman manages to cross genres quite well. Almost Amish may end up grabbing the attention of some readers who wouldn’t normally pick up a book with a bonnet or buggy on the cover, and educate them on why so many people find the Plain folk so fascinating.
I was surprised to find that Almost Amish wasn’t told entirely from Julie’s point-of-view, but also included sections from Susan, her perfectionist sister-in-law. But even though I was able to take a peek into Susan’s life and discover what had made her the woman she was at the start of the book, I still struggled to sympathise with her. That said, I am a lot younger than Susan and don’t have anywhere near as much life experience as her, so perhaps older women who have shared her struggles – infidelity, divorce, raising a teenage daughter – may be able to relate to her a little bit. I genuinely found Susan to be quite off-putting to begin with, and I have to admit that although I was glad that she grew as a character, I didn’t find her turnaround to be entirely realistic. I would have preferred a more gradual development of character, while it seemed almost as if her discussion with her daughter, Angie, caused her to instantly redefine her life and her priorities.
While I’d like to think I’m a tad better at cooking and housekeeping in comparison to Julie, I could definitely empathise with her feelings of trying to keep all the balls in the air and do everything at once. While Susan was always looking at everyone else and thinking about how she could improve on their mistakes, Julie constantly focused on her own shortcomings and never felt like anything she did was good enough. It was endearing to see how, in focusing so much on being involved in women’s groups and trying to do half a dozen things at once, Julie was missing how much her kids appreciated how she would drop everything for them. Julie’s story paved the way for a great message about how everyone’s gifts are equal, and that being a great listener and friend doesn’t make you less important than someone who is a gourmet cook or master seamstress. This is a message that I’m sure every female reader needs to hear.
Even if this isn’t necessarily a book about the Amish, I loved the way that Kathryn addressed the idea of how “simple” the Amish lifestyle really is. Almost Amish showed how being Amish doesn’t necessarily make your life easier, just as living in the English world doesn’t automatically mean that things will be more difficult. Julie and Susan didn’t necessarily go home and throw out all of their electrical appliances after their Amish experience – and I’m sure their time in Tennessee made them appreciate these modern conveniences even more! – but they did re-evaluate their priorities and adapt their lifestyles to suit some of the habits they’d learned while being Amish. I’m sure a lot of readers will appreciate being reminded that you don’t have to be Amish to make time for your family and enjoy nature. Almost Amish also contained some gentle reminders about how the Amish aren’t walking tourist attractions and that they deserve just as much respect as anyone else on the planet. Considering how popular the Amish are right now, it’s encouraging to see authors touching on this matter and kindly reminding readers to put their cameras a way and not point and stare.
Don’t let this cover fool you; Almost Amish is not your typical Amish novel. In fact, it isn’t really an Amish novel at all. Instead of writing about a simple Amish family going about their everyday lives with a sense of peace and contentment, Kathryn Cushman treats readers to the harsh truths about the stresses that face the average family in the twenty-first century. Whether you’re a perfectionist, like Susan, or never feel like you’re good enough, like Julie, you’ll be sure to appreciate the message in this book. Hopefully readers of Almost Amish will finish this novel with the feeling that they’re not alone in this world, and some ideas on how to simplify their lives that don’t require them to buy a horse or start wearing a bonnet.