I’m so pleased to have Jerry Eicher on Amish Crossings to help celebrate my new book, The Amish Doll, set in the same location of his Little Valley Series. Cattaraugus County, New York, is an hour south of Buffalo, in the heart of the Snowbelt. I used to live in this area and know he portrayed it very well. It’s my hope that Amish enthusiast will visit lesser known settlements, even finding them in their neck of the woods, so to speak.
Jerry was raised Amish, so his fiction, based on his heritage, are correct. After a traditional Amish childhood, Jerry taught for two terms in Amish and Mennonite schools in Ohio and Illinois. Since then he’s been involved in church renewal, preaching, and teaching Bible studies. Jerry lives with his wife, Tina, and their four children in Virginia. His. bestselling Amish fiction includes The Adams County Trilogy, the Hannah’s Heart books, the Little Valley Series, and The Fields of Home.
Let’s get right into the interview.
- Jerry, can you tell us how you started writing Amish fiction?
Many authors begin autobiographically, and I was no different. Writing in fiction form, I traced my growing up years in an Amish home. Most of which was spent in Honduras, Central America. The result was, a book called A Time to Live, but no publisher was interested. I self-published and the distributor of Choice Books test marketed for me. They came back with a positive report and said they would carry the title if I made changes to the cover and the price.
I did, and Choice sold around 6000 copies. Afterwards, my contact at Choice, Mr. John Gerber, said he wanted Amish romance stories. I said I didn’t write romance, that I wrote suspense. But he wouldn’t back down. So to please Mr. Gerber, I wrote, Sarah, which ended up selling over 30,000 copies. Harvest House then took me on in 2009 with The Adams County Trilogy.
- Can you share a special memory of your Amish upbringing?
“My Grandfather on the Eicher side of the family lived in a long white house with large windows in the front. Towards the back the house had a wing attached, with the mud room and woodshed giving easy access for the coming and goings from the barn. A portion of the house had an upstairs, the roof line leaving the welcoming sweep of the front windows unaffected.
“Here I remember the prayers around mealtimes, the long table used to seat everyone. Grandfather Eicher would lead out in his sing song chant that charmed and fascinated me. It was as if he knew a secret he wasn’t telling us. Some hidden pleasure he had found that we could not yet see.
“I always remember him laughing. That was how he approached us grandchildren, his
white beard flowing down his chest, his face glowing with happiness. And it didn’t take a special occasion to put him in such a mood. It was as if we were the occasion.”
(This is an unedited excerpt from My Amish Childhood due out in Jan. 2013 by Harvest House}
They believe that the modern life has little to offer the believer when it comes to spiritual growth. That success as the world measures it is usually empty. Rather they believe what satisfies a man or a woman; are family, community, peace in his own heart and with those living around him. They believe that God’s will is in everything, and that accepting that will brings true and lasting spiritual happiness.
- Are you thankful for your Amish heritage?
My heritage was never an issue with me. I see it as everyone having to be something. What mattered to me was the love of my parents, and the spiritual health of the community I grew up in. For those things I am thankful, but they are not necessarily related to being Amish.
- Why did you choose Cattaraugus County to write your Little Valley Series?
I discovered the community while driving to my Grandmother Stoll’s funeral in Aylmer, Ontario. Later I stopped in, and loved the countryside. It’s just beautiful up there. And the character, Ella was born. I discovered after the books were written that Ella is modeled after my Grandmother’s spiritual nerve. But I didn’t set out to make that connection in the beginning.
- There are many books out now about leaving the Amish. What do you think of this and do you agree?
The best known story, and the one I’m familiar with is Ira Wagler’s Growing up Amish. I loved the book, both for its style and honesty. Wagler’s story is genuine and tenderly told. Granted, it doesn’t make the Amish look good, but much worse could be said than what Wagler included in his book.
The assumptions being drawn is what I have a problem with. At its heart, Growing up Amish is more than a story about being, or not being Amish. Wagler tells a human story. That of a very successful man, i.e. his father, David Wagler. Who by Wagler’s own definition was the most famous Amish man of his day and a man who either does not, or cannot properly relate to his sons. Yet, this could just as well have happened anywhere.
The point is that the Amish are not immune to the human sin problem. They think their culture is a better context in which to deal with sin. But most of them are not blind to the fact that it takes the same Christian redemptive process in their lives as in any other believer.
Of course I am aware of those Amish communities—and even families within communities—who have lost sight of this truth. And they are primarily the ones from where the horror stories come. Any culture, who thinks itself immune from the human sin problem, is in for a rude awakening. What usually follows, is that, having made the culture an issue, the conclusion is naturally drawn by the victim that the culture is the problem. In this case, the Amish culture.
- Have you ever been to an Amish wedding? Can you tell us a little about it?
I grew up Amish, but since then, we don’t get invitations to weddings. Although my parents—who are also Mennonites—received one for this June. And we’re driving, so we might get to take that one in.
I frequently go through Amish weddings in my fiction. The service starts at nine in the morning, and goes until after twelve. A big meal follows the vows, and things break up for the afternoon. In the evening it’s the young people’s time, with supper at six. Everyone has to pair up, even if you’re not dating. Singing starts at 7:30 and goes to 9:00. The young folks split the scene, but the older folks hang around talking, sometimes until midnight.
And the young married couple can’t leave until the last guest does. Midnight or no midnight.
- What is your contact with the Amish today? What do they think about you writing about them?
My side of the family has their headquarters in Aylmer, Ontario. Basically, running the community of four districts, I believe. So far they’ve tolerated us coming back for funerals. The same goes for Tina’s home community in northern Indiana.
We left the Amish from Belle Center, Ohio. That’s been over twenty years now, and hostile feelings have settled down. I wouldn’t get invitations to weddings yet, but we do attend the funerals to a warm welcome.
At the last funeral we attended, I was accosted afterwards by several men about my Amish fiction. They had strong objections. Words like, lucrative and opportunistic were tossed about. I smiled and pointed out that I wasn’t doing anything that the Amish at Pathway Publication hadn’t done for years. I grew up reading the Simon & Susie stories. And other than being more culturally accurate and having a more pointed message, current romance stories published in The Young Companion are not that distinguishable from mainline “Amish Fiction”.
- What books are you working on now?
To learn more about the Amish of Cattaraugus and Chautauqua Counties in New York, read Jerry’s Little Valley Series, and The Amish Doll by yours truly ;) Get some hot cocoa, because you’ll be cold!