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RUMSPRINGA by Tom Shachtman


To Be or Not To Be Amish

by Tom Shachtman

Pub Date: June 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-86547-687-X
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Even Amish teenagers need to blow off steam.

Shachtman (Terrors and Marvels, 2001, etc.) describes the rite of passage called rumspringa, which allows these kids to sample their “English” counterparts’ vices—drinking, drug use, casual sex—before deciding whether to accept the Amish way of life and renounce those excesses for good. Surprisingly, perhaps, studies show that nearly 80 percent of Amish youngsters in the rural enclaves of Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio eventually settle down to a way of life in which they do without such modern staples as electricity, television and automobiles. This in-depth, generally fascinating account presents the hardships and rewards of that lifestyle, focusing on young Amish who must make a choice about it. Readers may be surprised to read of gatherings in which hundreds of Amish teens meet in rural fields and barns for weekend-long drinking and drug parties. Their parents generally accept the practice, believing that youth will willingly embrace the Amish life only after tasting what they'll be giving up. Shachtman shows the Amish struggling to maintain their separateness in a changing world. The traditional Amish farm now employs only 20 percent of the community’s adults, forcing many to seek work in the factories, woodworking shops and tourist restaurants of the English world. Since Amish youth usually are expected to leave school and join the workforce after eighth grade (in January 2004, President Bush signed a law exempting the Amish from child-labor restrictions), employment options are severely restricted, especially for women. On the other hand, their support system is a marvel, even providing free health care and retirement support to church members. Shachtman's book suffers somewhat from an over-reliance on windy research studies and tomes like the Mennonite Quarterly Review. Since he eschews surnames in favor of last initials, it’s difficult to keep track of his characters as he leapfrogs among their stories.

Nevertheless, a riveting and instructive portrait.