Although vampire romance novels are still dominating bestseller lists, the publishing world may have found a replacement for the blood-sucking lotharios: the Amish. Sales of romance novels set in the closeted religious community are on the rise, reports USA Today. "Bonnet books," as they're known in the industry, represent 15 percent of Barnes & Noble's top religious titles, says Jane Love, a B&N buyer, as quoted in The Wall Street Journal: "It's almost like you put a person with a bonnet or an Amish field in the background and it automatically starts to sell well." (See a slideshow of Amish romance novel covers.) Here, a guide to the latest publishing sensation:
Who are the Amish?
A community of rural Mennonite Christians who purposefully deny themselves modern conveniences in order to live a more sin-free life. The strictest Amish live without electricity and gas, travel by horse and buggy, and dress in plain 19th-century style clothing. Most are based in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.
What's a typical plot?
"Bonnet books," also called "Amish inspirationals," unfold along traditional romance-novel lines — but feature little or no sex. Generally, an Amish character, either male or female, falls in love with an "Englisher" (a non-Amish) and must choose between the relationship or their religion. Some books are set during "Rumspringa," when Amish teenagers are permitted a taste of the Englisher lifestyle before deciding to commit to the church.
Can I read an excerpt?
"Still shaken at finding Mamma's hankie, I wandered across the kitchen and pushed open the screen door. I leaned on it and stared toward the shining green field, with its rows as straight as the telephone poles up the road, near Route 340. Near where the fancy folk live. I reached beneath my long work apron and touched the soiled handkerchief in my dress pocket. Mamma's very own. Had I unknowingly yearned for such a token?" — from The Missing, by Beverly Lewis
Who is penning these books?
The queen of the genre is Beverly Lewis, whose Amish novels number some 23 titles (including The Sacrifice, The Confession, and The Betrayal), and have sold 13.5 million copies. Other stars of the genre include Wanda Brunstetter and up-and-comer Cindy Woodmall. None are Amish, though Lewis had "Plain" relatives on her mother's side.
To what can this phenomenon be attributed?
American women have enjoyed sentimental novels celebrating faith and family since the time of Jane Austen, says literary professor Pamela Regis. The books' spiritual focus and portrayal of a non-secular life also means they are "enormously popular with evangelical Christian readers," says Deirdre Donahue at USA Today. The Amish setting also provides a "quiet environment for readers," adds Andrea Sachs at Time. The lack of modern technology makes for a "slow and soothing" pace.
What do the Amish think?
Reaction has been mixed. Some dismiss the books as a "distorted, soap-opera version of Amish life," while others reportedly snap up the novels as soon as they are released. Lewis claims to have been told by an Amish fan that "all the women in our church district are reading your books under the covers, literally."
Is this a new phenomenon?
Not exactly. Lewis' first Amish novel, The Shunning, was released in 1997. To date, it has sold 1 million copies. But sales of the genre are now reportedly on the rise, and publishers are on the lookout for more bonnet-and-buggy romances. The broader romance-fiction category generates about $1.4 billion in sales annually.
Are there other works of fiction set in the Amish world?
There certainly are. The most famous is probably the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness, in which Kelly McGillis plays a young Amish woman whose son witnesses a murder. More recently, best-selling novelist Jodie Picoult's book Plain Truth (2001) is a courtroom drama set in the Amish community. The lifestyle is also the basis for 1993 comedy, Kingpin, and inspired parodist "Weird" Al Yankovic to pen the song "Amish Paradise" in 1996, based on the song "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio.