Book Review: Growing up Amish by Ira Wagler

Book Review: Growing up Amish by Ira Wagler

Book Review by Bud Gundy

There’s always value in reading about a way of life and culture that you know nothing about.  Growing up in Ohio, I knew the Amish only as a mysterious and secretive group that lived out in the hinterlands – “Amish Country” we called it in Cleveland.  As a child, it seemed a million miles away, both physically and philosophically.  As an adult, you can get there inside of 30 minutes from where I grew up, and I no longer find religious extremism mysterious.

Ira Wagler is a fine and talented writer who brings the Amish family and community where he was raised to life in a very accessible way.  It’s engrossing to read about the rituals of life and courtship, school and work, from a perspective that seems American but oddly distinct.  It’s hardly a surprise – stripped of cultural touchstones, there’s a richness of experience to explore but also a chilling alienation.

Wagler’s older brothers chart his course early when they vanish into the night, an apparently not-uncommon occurrence in Amish families.  Boys, eager to dispense with family drama, slip away when everyone else has gone to bed to flee the grueling work schedule and lack of opportunity.  There’s just one course available – marriage, farm work and family.  Ok, there are more – you can repair buggies or do something else that helps other Amish families live their lives without the benefit of technology, but let’s face it – it’s an automatic limit that boys and girls must accept.

Let's not even mention the unbearable isolation this must create for LGBT Amish people.  Wagler doesn't, and it seems a blaring omission.

Wagler doesn’t accept these constraints, but neither does he outright reject this constrained way of life.  He does flee, crushing his parents, but returns only to flee again.  And again.  I think he left something like four times, which sets up some really interesting religious conflict.  Redemption is a powerful force in the Amish world, probably of necessity, and he takes advantage when he can (once he can’t – a really interesting story in itself.)

Wagler’s conflict eventually ensnares a young Amish girl who accepts his courtship and gladly agrees to marry him, only to make his final break with the Amish way of life more poignant, since the girl was committed to her family and community.  It would be easy to condemn him for the way he uses this girl to test his own faith, but he was still just young enough to let him escape with only our regret, not our disgust with this somewhat underhanded method.  Even at the time of writing this memoir, he doesn’t seem to be aware that this is a possibility, but lack of self-awareness is a common human failing of which we are all guilty.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the Amish. 

Available online here