Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish – Sue Bender (1989)

book cover

A brief book that I found revelatory about ten years ago, and decided to reread and see if the message still resonated. It did and it didn’t. (How’s that for a squirrelly answer?)

Bender is an artist and a therapist, both of which are clearly reflected throughout this short series of essays. She feels that she is missing something or needs to find something to be happy and after seeing and loving some old Amish quilts in a New York shop, decides to see if she can find an Amish family who will let her stay with them for a while to experience Amish life for herself.

Bender is a strong writer and she has some good points to make. I can’t help feeling, though, that her message is somewhat diluted by her privileged life. She has just returned from living five months in Italy, her family is obviously well supported by other income streams so she can take extended time off, and then, when she returns to her former “English” (i.e. non-Amish) life, she can take days thinking about and analyzing her experience away.

Despite this quibbling on my part, Bender does seem to appreciate the choices that she can make and that her family can survive without her (or her income). This is not a self-help book, but more of an exploration into an identity crisis of a creative woman who lives in Berkeley. The first time I read this (more than 10 years ago), I was really taken by the ideas and comments that she made, and could relate to them much more strongly than I did this time when I read it.

Bender finds an Amish family who is willing to let her live with them for an unspecified amount of time (weeks? Months?) and then stay even longer when she doesn’t feel “ready” to go home. (Was her host family happy or sad about that? My thoughts if I’d been the [unpaid] host family: “Is she ever going to go home?”… :-))

Her initial foray into the Amish world smashed some stereotypes (both good and bad) of Amish culture and helps her to sort out some of her mild confusion about life, most of the book taking the tack of “being true to yourself” which is a good message, but hardly mind-blowingly original. And how “true” to yourself can you be if you don’t live a life of privilege and choices such as hers? How “true” to yourself can you be when you’re working the late shift at McDonalds and your kids are at your grandparents and the other parent is in jail?…

Perhaps this was too simplistic a read now that I am older and in a different spot. I enjoyed the book and purposefully slowed down my reading speed to engage more with it, but if I’m honest, it’s a wee bit repetitive. However, perhaps a different reader would have a wildly different experience as they would see this all through a different lens.

This is a good reminder of good advice, and I remember when I first read it, that it was spot-on for where I was at that time in my life. And if it was that way for me, then it will probably be spot-on for someone else.

Must say that the production values (paper, ink, font, design) of this volume was extremely good – lots of white space, big line spacing, simple and uncluttered. Surely a reflection of the uncluttered design seen in Amish communities. It was a simple graphic joy to look at and to read (design-wise).

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