Book Review: Growing Up Amish – by Ira Wagler

Ira Wagler was born in the Old Order Amish community of Aylmer, Ontario in Canada. At seventeen, frustrated by the rules and restrictions of Amish life, Ira got up at 2:00am, packed his duffel bag, left a note under his pillow, and walked away.

I knew very little about Amish life before I read Growing Up Amish. I had seen buggies when I lived in Western New York, but only very occasionally. Amish are not allowed to have their pictures taken, so most buggy pictures are from the back. I knew Amish people do not own motorized vehicles, but will ride buses and trains, or take rides with other people. Amish speak a dialect of German called Pennsylvania Dutch, refer to all people not Amish as English, often shun modern conveniences like running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, popular music, motorized tools, etc. Men have to grow beards that they don’t trim, but can’t have mustaches. Hence the very characteristic Amish look.

That’s about it. I knew about Amish from what I learned in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness. I loved the barn raising scene in that movie – come to think of it, I need to rent that and see it again.

All said, I knew very little about Amish life, and my knowledge was completely stereotyped and trite.

Reading Growing Up Amish was highly educational. Wagler writes about his childhood as an Amish child, the ninth out of eleven siblings. He describes how the culture and lifestyle creates people who are completely bound to their traditions and see everyone that is not part of their group as bound for eternal damnation. Religion is a powerful controller of people, and Wagler’s story is rife with severe guilt and terrible struggles to overcome the harsh restrictions and seemingly senseless rules of a people apparently stuck in the 19th century, yet surrounded by today’s world.

While from the outside it looks like all Amish are the same, it becomes clear very quickly that is not true. There are Amish communities in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the most famous area, but also in Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Kentucky and many other states and communities. They are different, some are more strict than others, and it all can depend on just the nature or attitude of the local church leader, the bishop. Rules can vary greatly from district to district. In one, power lawn mowers may be allowed, in others only hand-powered push mowers are permissible. Some areas require buggy wheels to be steel-rimmed. Others allow rubber. Some communities do not permit plastic frames for glasses, only steel. A bishop’s policies can drastically affect real estate values in a district. The more progressive the bishop, the higher the real estate values because more people move there.

Several relevations struck me reading this book. Amish move around a lot more than I thought. Yes, I am sure some stay put for the rest of their lives in one community, but some move great distances. The Wagler parents moved from Daviess, Missouri to Ontario before Ira was born, and then they moved to Iowa when he was a teenager.  From Ira’s description I gathered that teenagers are leaving the Amish in droves. Every one of the six Wagler sons left home when they were 16 or older. None of them could just walk out in broad daylight. They all had to steal away in the dark of night like thieves, otherwise it would not have been possible. The pressures on young people to stay in the community and church is so strong, it’s just about impossible to overcome.

Wagler describes his own journey, growing up and trying to leave – an impossible feat – and how he eventually came to terms with his reality and his heritage.

Growing Up Amish was a very powerful book to read.

Rating: ***

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