In Plain View: The Daily Lives of Amish Women by Judy Stavisky is a very informative and enjoyable book. For a decade, the author volunteered as a driver for a number of Amish women in Lancaster County, PA. She accompanied them on their errands, and thus she came to know them and discover how they lived, raised their children, planned family meals, cultivated their gardens, preserved the produce for winter, cleaned their houses, purchased fabric and sewed their family’s clothing, hosted church services in their homes, and many other tasks.
The author saw how they shopped at diverse stores, including stores that catered to Amish customers as well as mainstream stores that had what they needed. For example, Costco is a perfect place for Amish women to buy bulk foods and other goods for their large families — and occasionally a rotisserie chicken, the only ready-prepared food the author saw an Amish family use. In thrift stores like the Salvation Army, they look for household goods and some articles of clothing, such as men’s shirts. Amish general stores and sewing stores offer a variety of specialized items, including the school books for Amish children, who use very outdated texts that feel more relevant to their way of life.
While most of my previous reading about the Amish features the things that are absent from their lives, especially modern conveniences, this book tells what they do have, and how they have adapted their use of modern technology on their own terms. For example, putting food away for winter involves canning but also freezing the produce from gardens and meat from economic purchases. Amish homes are not wired for electricity, so they often have propane-powered freezers. Also, larger families rent lockers in a the freezers of commercial establishment. Many families have one or two electric lamps that are powered by a battery pack so that they can light rooms at night. A small shed on their property allows many families to control the use of a telephone and answering machine. Members of the family can get messages, but do not generally have phone conversations. As the author learned at the beginning of her contact with them, Amish people do not drive or own cars, but they do accept rides or hire non-Amish people to drive them to places that are too far to go by horse and buggy.
Above all, the book documents a people who combine individual family life in single-family homes with a very communal attitude towards helping friends, family, and neighbors. Here’s an example of the way their values are expressed: any sort of competitiveness is discouraged. In school, children’s drawings posted on the classroom bulletin board have the signatures on the back to avoid comparing the work of one with another. At weddings, to avoid comparisons between hosts, the main meal served is always the same — stuffed chicken, mashed potatoes, creamed celery, and coleslaw (p. 181). Women sew their own clothing from a very restricted range of fabrics and colors, and essentially all use the same dress pattern. If women want to express solidarity or friendship, two or more of them often arrange to wear matching colors when they get together.
The book includes a wealth of detail that I have never seen before in articles about the Amish, nor have I been able to make any observations at this level of detail when visiting Lancaster where my brother and sister-in-law live. I’m grateful that they sent me this book, which is really wonderful to read!
Review © 2022 mae sander