On one Christian publisher’s site, Amish romance books are characterized as stories about Christian people following the “simple life.” Other books, offered by other publishers, announce right in the title that its characters are “simple,” with a “simple” choice and “simple” love. The word itself, simple, seems to be a useful marketing tool, drawing readers away from their seemingly complex lives and into, well, an alternatively simple world of buggies, quilts and quiet faith.
In her new memoir, Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite, Lucinda J. Miller challenges this image of simplicity. The book’s title itself calls into question the idea that a conservative Mennonite’s life is uncomplicated. Miller’s thoughtful narrative provides a welcome antidote to those that distill Amish and Mennonites into a caricature of simple Christians who live off the grid, build barns for their neighbors and try to avoid buggy accidents.
In a chapter describing her decision to take a creative-writing course, Miller announces it is in part these stereotyped images of Mennonites in literature that fuel her writing: “Most of the stories I had read about Mennonites — even those written by Plain people themselves — seemed to me caricatures. Comic photos catching the high points and exaggerating them. Or ideals that showed how we thought we should look. Not a realistic portrayal of what we are.”
Miller wonders why people outside her community get to write about their dynamic lives and claim license to simplify hers. Her written work, she argues, bears witness to the fact that she is present, real — and that Mennonites like her are not so simple after all, not “strange wild-eyed and stupid cow-eyed people” but humans with real lives, real emotions and real complexity.
Anything But Simple fulfills this mission of making Mennonite life more than mere caricature. By narrating her own life experiences, Miller helps readers see what it means to be a young woman and a conservative Mennonite, trying to navigate technology and its use in her home; the complexities of the single life and dating; the challenges of building a teaching career; the difficulties of forging friendships with women who know little about Mennonites and the culture within which Miller operates.
Miller’s talent as a writer is on full display, and her lovely prose style offers a rich perspective on her day-to-day life. She returns often to her vocational interests as a writer, and part of the memoir expresses her calling to be a writer and the passion she feels in conveying her story through words.
She also admits to frustrations common to writers, including the realization that a yearlong commitment to one manuscript did not manifest a publishable finished product.
Writing is not her only calling. Miller works as a schoolteacher in Rusk County, Wis., where she lives on her parents’ farm. She keeps a blog, Properties of Light, on which she details more of her life alongside humor and what if means to live in an expansive family. Her blog, and her presence on social media, is just one more way Miller defies caricatures of conservative Mennonites. She provides an interesting juxtaposition, acknowledging she lives in a household without TV but with internet access to a wide world beyond her Wisconsin farm home.
The richest part of Miller’s memoir details her friendship with Charlene and then Mara. Both are far older than Miller, with life experiences vastly different from hers. They often challenge Miller because of these differences. Miller is at her most vulnerable here, sharing the frustrations and joys of these friendships and the ways they reveal to Miller her own character.
Miller’s portrayal of her extended family, particularly her parents, is sympathetic. Her willingness to narrate her parents’ struggles with money and the vagaries of farm life also challenge the romanticized vision of the Mennonite farmer peacefully working his field. Through Miller’s story, we see instead her father’s weariness as a farmer, the necessity of finding other jobs for the entire family to supplement his income, and still his fidelity to the land and the vocation to which he had dedicated his life.
Anything But Simple is another book in Herald Press’s Plainspoken series, which promises to tell “real-life stories of Amish and Mennonites.” Miller’s memoir is a wonderful addition to this series. Her honesty about the complexity of being conservative Mennonite and straddling several worlds is refreshing.
Each book in the series includes a “Day in the Life of the Author” description, which affords readers a far more nuanced view of what it means to be Amish or Mennonite. This, alongside Miller’s captivating story and strong prose, makes Anything But Simple a richer book than the popular Christian romances that seem far too one-dimensional in their treatment of plain people.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.