RUMSPRINGA by Tom Schachtman

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'Em ...take our poll!

Rumspringa (December 14, 2006) Many of us have driven through parts of Pennsylvania accepting signs of the Amish enclaves there as mere scenery. We think "quaint," "unusual," "great quilts" and profess to understand the ways of the Old Order Amish. Book-'em was aware of their modest dress codes, the prohibition against electricity and other wires within the home, the iconic black buggy mode of transportation. Not one of us had ever heard of a coming-of-age practice known as "rumspringa." Rumspringa: To Be Or Not To Be Amish is Tom Schachtman's look at this ritual. Over a period of six years, the author conducted hours of interviews with individuals within the Amish communities throughout the country to look at the rumspringa process. The word translates as "running around outside the bounds."

Amish offspring are not considered church members, nor are they held to the rules of the community, the ordnung, until they willingly make the choice to be baptized. At the age of sixteen they may enter their rumspringa period during which time they are free to explore, enjoy, and sample any activity including driving cars, drinking, smoking, television, modern dress and wild, weekend long parties. Schachtman writes "the Amish count on the process to inoculate youth against the strong pull of the forbidden by dosing them with the vaccine of a little worldly experience." The rumspringa period ends when the individual feels ready to make the decision to either leave the community or to commit to the Amish way of life, undergo baptism and become an adult member of the Old Order Amish. There is no time restriction placed on the duration of the process. While not all Amish youth choose to have a rumspringa period, of those who do more than 80% will go on to join the church.

The book is a presentation of a number of individuals and their personal experiences set alongside an historical overview of the religion as well as a look at multiple facets of Amish life: education, farming, employment trends, gender. Our members felt that Schachtman's inability to sustain a narrative thread was the work's largest flaw. It was difficult (though fortunately unnecessary) to keep track of individual characters and the book was repetitive to a fault. While critical of style, most of our group enjoyed the selection for its informative and interesting content.

Much of our evening's discussion revolved around our own reactions to Amish life. Some members were horrified that the Amish end their education after the 8th grade. "This is the flaw in the Amish. Their way of life is based on fundamental ignorance," said one reader. Others countered that we were imposing our own standards and values. That attitude overlooked the "stability, safety and comfort of their way of life. Maybe that is an acceptable trade-off." We were envious of how content the Amish are as a people and awed by their non-judgmental acceptance. The latter had been dramatically illustrated to us by recent media interviews with members of the Lancaster community after the tragic killings in an Amish schoolhouse this fall. We also admired the value placed on family and community by these people as individuals and as a whole. There are marked contrasts between how the Amish and the mainstream population we live in define self-identity and self worth.

One member noted that the author seemed to have written Rumspringa less to present information than to take a sociological look at a community which might offer solutions to mainstream issues. He asks, "How can we adopt Amish methods to raise our kids to share our moral and ethical values?" This could be an engaging question for other book groups to explore.

Another avenue for your book club might be to contrast the Amish with the Church of Latter Day Saints. Jon Krakauer's Under The Banner Of Heaven (see previous Gazette review) would be an interesting simultaneous selection.

Book-'Em is giving Rumspringa a qualified recommendation. If any of the above themes or suggestions appeal to your group for discussion, it is certainly a worthwhile read. If engaging style is a requisite in your club's selection process, you might be disappointed. Overall, Book-'em was pleased with the selection.

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