One of the pleasures of reading Linda's work is the absolute authenticity she brings to her description of life in and around an Amish farming community. Today, she tells us how she earned that authenticity.
My love affair with Ohio’s Amish Country began about ten years ago on a cold January afternoon. There was four inches of snow on the ground and the mercury hovered around the twenty degree mark. I was travelling with my sister, Debbie, and my brother in law, Jack. We arrived in Fredericktown in northeastern Ohio and drove directly to the farm where Jack grew up. “The Farm,” as it is affectionately known, consists of a two hundred-year-old house on a hundred acres of farmland. We toured the charming old house, which was originally built without indoor plumbing or electricity, and over coffee, we talked about the history of the place. Eventually conversation turned to the Amish and the barn-raising next door, the Amish teenagers that got into trouble for drinking alcohol, racing their buggies through town (and something about buying or selling cigarettes) all during their “rumspringa” or “running around” period, which takes place before they are baptized. I learned the Amish are good businessmen, excellent farmers and generally make for some very good neighbors.
Later, we went outside to see the rest of the farm. I was marveling at the quiet loveliness of the snowy countryside when in the distance I discerned the unmistakable sound of shod hooves on asphalt. I looked down the road to see an Amish buggy approaching. The driver was clad in traditional Amish garb: black coat, black trousers, flat-brimmed hat and a full beard. Watching him, I felt as if I’d been transported a hundred years back in time, and in that moment the full impact of the contrasts between the Amish and “English” way of life struck me. I realized this much-overlooked and fascinating place had a story to tell, and I wanted to tell it.
When I arrived home in Texas, I began researching and writing the first book in my Kate Burkholder thriller series, SWORN TO SILENCE.
In the Spring of 2009, I travelled to Ohio again for the pre-launch tour of the book. After a whirlwind trip that took me from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati to Dayton I had two glorious days left so I headed to Holmes County—the heart of Amish Country and home to the largest population of Amish in the world.
I arrived in Millersburg at dusk and went directly to the bed and breakfast where I was staying. The old house was built in circa 1885 and had been lovingly remodeled with much attention to detail. The proprietor told me much of the renovation had been done by the Amish.
The next morning, I woke to gourmet coffee and the best French toast I’d ever tasted. After chatting with the owner (and petting his very cute dachshund!) I was off on my adventure. The first thing I noticed about Amish Country was the beauty of the place—tall trees, manicured farms and green, lush fields. The roads are narrow, hilly and wind like a river through a picturesque countryside. Most of the Amish farms are set back from the road and are neat and well-kept. Many post signs at the end of their lane, advertising cheese, eggs or crafts for sale.
I spent an hour or so familiarizing myself with Millersburg. The small downtown area is chock full of antique shops, quaint buildings, well-kept homes and several cafes. I stopped a man walking his dog for directions and found him to be helpful and friendly. He recommended a renowned local cheese shop. Knowing I couldn’t return to Texas without sampling some of the local fare, I was on my way.
Heini’s Cheese Chalet has been in business since 1935 and sells over seventy varieties of cheese. One of the things that differentiates their cheese from other cheeses is that the milk comes from local Amish farms. It’s brought in daily in old-fashioned milk cans and manufactured on site by a master cheese maker. I sampled the baby Swiss and the goat milk cheese and found both to be absolutely marvelous.
Next, I swung by the local Wal-Mart for some bottled water. I was delighted to find covered parking for the Amish buggies and horses. Inside, I discovered many Amish families shop at Wal-Mart.
Back in my rental car, I headed out of town to explore the rural countryside. U.S. 62 is a narrow and winding two-lane highway. A few miles out of town, I came upon an Amish man and woman traveling in a buggy. Naturally, I slowed down and followed at a safe distance. I could plainly see that the Amish man was pushing the horse to trot faster, as if knowing the “English” drivers behind him would become impatient. To my dismay, he was right. The driver in the little red car behind me gunned the engine, making a rude gesture as he sped past us. I was appalled and embarrassed by the man’s behavior, and I realized the cultural differences between the Amish and the English can sometimes cause conflict.
While there, I took a few photographs of the countryside, of old farmhouses and other places of interest. I had wanted photos of the Amish as well, but I couldn’t bring myself to photograph them. In the course of my research, I had discovered many don’t like having their photos taken. Various reasons are given for this aversion. Some believe any kind of portrait demonstrates vanity or a lack of humility. Others feel that personal likenesses violate the Second Commandment regarding “graven images.” Whatever the case, I felt as if snapping a photo would be an invasion of their privacy, and so I didn’t.
On my way to the airport in Dayton, I drove past an Amish man and his large family traveling in a buggy. The highway was busy with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. I watched as the cars lined up behind the buggy, passing only when the oncoming flow of traffic allowed. It seemed dangerous. As I passed, I glanced over at the man, and I saw the stress in his face. I wondered how often he had to travel this busy highway. I wondered if he ever felt as if he were in danger. I smiled and waved as I slowly drove past. The man and his two little boys returned my smile and waved back. That exchange, however small, felt very genuine and right.
The Amish way of life has remained virtually unchanged for two hundred years. About eighty percent of Amish children choose to join the church when they turn eighteen. They choose the Amish ways over all of the things the “English” way of life has to offer. That fact alone speaks volumes about the enduring spirit of the Amish. I believe the culture will continue on for another two hundred years, unchanged and, for the most part, unaffected by the rest of the world.
What do you think, dear readers? Could you embrace the Amish lifestyle? Or do you prefer to get your exposure through marathoning Amish Mafia on the Discover Channel? And what do you think of Linda's unique take on the police procedural? Do you like her genre-blending? Let us know, and one lucky commenter will get a copy of the most recent Kate Burkholder mystery, HER LAST BREATH!
Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder series has been called "absolutely stunning" "chilling" and "masterful." You can find out more about Linda and her books, including the most recent, HER LAST BREATH, at her website. You can friend Linda on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @LindaCastillo11.