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Monday, August 20, 2007

Book Discussion: Rumspringa by Tom Shachtman

Today my book group at the Berwyn Public Library discussed Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman. Rumspringa is about the years from age 16 on when the adolescent Amish have finished their schooling and are allowed to explore the outside world with no restraint (and I mean NO restraint). A basic tenet of the Amish is that they are not baptized into the church until they are adult and can freely choose to join. After experiencing rumspringa, 80% of these adolescence return to the Amish way of life.

The book was not a traditional narrative nonfiction, but it was also not a dry treatise. Although the reader is introduced to many young people throughout the course of the pages, it was slightly frustrating that each of their stories was not told in chronological order. Rather, Shachtman chose to have each chapter focus on a topic and then fit the stories into the subject matter. For example, there were chapters on education, women's lives, and shunning. On the positive side, our group did discuss how this method of organization did teach us more about the Amish way of life and the reasoning behind their decisions, which, we also discussed, is probably more important that being able to follow one kid's story from beginning to end.

While we discussed the rumspringa process and how useful (or not) it was for these kids to go crazy and get drunk and high before ultimately deciding to go back to the Amish way of life; we also had a fascinating conversation about what the rest of American society can learn from the Amish. A lot of my members discussed how their lives lack the sense of purpose and sense of community that the Amish have in abundance. Just a little of that would go a long way to curing many of our societal ills-- at least this was the majority opinion.

I would suggest this book to any faith based discussion group. Any general discussion group that is willing to read nonfiction and does not mind the religious content will be intrigued by the contrast and increasing intersection of two very different ways of life. Any general reader who likes to learn about different ways of life and does not mind the non-narrative style should try this one. If you know nothing about the Amish this is a good primer, but the focus really is on this adolescent decision to join the church. There are many other books that are about the adult lives of the Amish. Your local library should have a few.

In terms of readalikes for Rumspringa, in fiction I would suggest the Harmony Series by Philip Gulley or Beverly Lewis' Amish series. For nonfiction readers there are many choices, but John Hostetler's Amish Society is a good place to start. Hostetler was born to an old order Amish family and is now a professor. The link to the book on Amazon also gives many other suggestions. Remember, many of these books will be available through your local public library.

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