Plain Secrets
"Joe Mackall's Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish meets the biggest challenge of a book such as this by living up to his subtitle: Mackall is both outside and among in equal measure, and it's the most difficult terrain to occupy. Plain Secrets vibrates in that in-betweenness, in ways that only songs or poems usually can, and it does so in prose that's as clear as water. It's built the way the Amish build their barns -- everything here is plumb and level."

-Diana Hume George, author of The Lonely Other: A Woman Watching America

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The Swartzentruber Amish schools of Ashland County are gray block buildings, although sometimes the block is painted white. They’re approximately eight hundred square feet and covered with a tin roof. Inside these block walls sit around twenty-five students from the first to the eighth grade, all under the same roof, all under the tutelage of the same teacher. Because school is considered less important than the church and the home, which are clearly patriarchal, school is taught by young girls who make around $800 a year.


School for the Swartzentruber Amish lasts until the eighth grade, at which time the students return home to work for their parents until they reach age twenty-one. Although a typical Swartzentruber Amish education only focuses on obedience, memorization and learning basic English and math, by the time they graduate, children are bilingual in English and Pennsylvania Dutch. Almost all children walk to and from school—a four-mile round trip journey for some—although the teacher and some of the older children will occasionally use a buggy.

Coming in Paperback, June 2008

About Plain Secrets

Joe Mackall has lived surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish community of Ashland County, Ohio, for over sixteen years. They are the most traditional and insular of all the Amish sects: the Swartzentrubers live without gas, electricity, or indoor plumbing; without lights on their buggies or cushioned chairs in their homes; and without rumspringa, the recently popularized “running-around time” that some Amish sects allow their sixteen-year-olds.

Over the years, Mackall has developed a steady relationship with the Shetler family (Samuel and Mary, their nine children, and their extended family). Plain Secrets tells the Shetlers’ story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuel’s nephew Jonas finally rejects the strictures of the Amish way of life for good, after two failed attempts to leave, and his bright young daughter reaches the end of school for Amish children: the eighth grade. But Plain Secrets is also the story of the unusual friendship between Samuel and Joe. Samuel is quietly bemused—and, one suspects, secretly delighted—at Joe’s ignorance of crops and planting, carpentry and cattle. He knows Joe is planning to write a book about the family, and yet he allows him a glimpse of the tensions inside this intensely private community.

These and other stories from the life of the family reveal the larger questions posed by the Amish way of life. If the continued existence of the Amish in the midst of modern society asks us to consider the appeal of traditional, highly restrictive, and gendered religious communities, it also asks how we romanticize or condemn these communities—and why. Mackall’s attempt to parse these questions—to write as honestly as possible about what he has seen of Amish life—tests his relationship with Samuel and reveals the limits of a friendship between “English” and Amish.