Book Reviews

Brevity Home | Book Review Page |   |  


Review of

Joe Mackall's Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish

Beacon Press, 2007


By Todd Davis

No secrets—plain or otherwise. I confess: I’m Mennonite. Not Amish, but Anabaptist nonetheless. Another confession: I grew up in Elkhart County in the state of Indiana, surrounded by Amish and Mennonites of all stripes, and it’s one of the reasons that I became an Anabaptist, although I was raised Presbyterian. These plain people—with their love of family; their belief in community; their unwavering commitment to follow Christ’s admonition to love our enemies, and their desire to live simply, rooted for many in an almost Zen-like appreciation for the sacred found in the natural world—made the gospel real to me.

I bought Plain Secrets, at least in part, because of these connections, and as an English—(to many Mennonites and to all Amish I’ll always be English, an outsider living among them)—I related to and was intrigued by Joe Mackall’s status as an interloper and the ways he might tell a story of friendship despite certain degrees of separation from a culture in which he can never fully partake.

Mackall betrays no one in this loving rendition of a Swartzentruber Amish family living in Ashland County, Ohio. As plainspoken as the people he lives among, Mackall’s prose sets forth the difficulty of friendship—how one we admire and respect and, perhaps, even love, might live in ways that offend us, that might seem contradictory or hypocritical at times, as our own ways must seem to them. In telling the story of Samuel Shetler and his family, Mackall shows the rest of us that living in difference is not only a possibility but also a deeply rewarding approach to a world that seems bent upon stratification: the like-minded living with the like-minded, idealizing, ignoring, or condemning those whose ways seem foreign.

The true beauty of Plain Secrets is summed up in the biblical charge that we ought to love our neighbor as we love our self. It’s this kind of love that leads Mackall to drive Samuel to his mother’s funeral in Ontario, Canada; that causes Samuel and Mackall to show up at each other’s homes and offer to help with whatever chores need to be done; that allows Samuel to share his dream of moving west where land is cheaper; that thrusts both Mackall and Samuel into the joy and grief of raising children, sharing the burden of burying a child or watching one go astray.

It is truly a wonder that Samuel entrusts his story to an outsider like Mackall, a trust that carries with it the possibility of grave implications for his family and himself within this particular Amish sect. But this is exactly what Samuel does: with love he trusts his friend and with love he gives away the truth of his story. In return, Joe Mackall writes a book out of the same kind of love, with an honesty that seeks neither to hide nor to harm, one that is as much about self-revelation as it is about a glimpse into the Swartzentruber Amish way of life.

Todd Davis teaches creative writing, environmental studies, and American literature at Penn State University—Altoona. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in such journals and magazines as The North American Review, The Iowa Review, West Branch, River Styx, Arts & Letters, Indiana Review, Quarterly West, Green Mountains Review, Poetry East, and Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. He is the author of two books of poems, Ripe (Bottom Dog Press, 2002) and Some Heaven (Michigan State University Press, 2007). Poems from Some Heaven have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac and in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry.