Guest Blogger: Karen Harper
Unless you know Amish thinking as well as I do, after studying and visiting them for twenty years and writing nine suspense novels set among them (or, OK, unless you remember the classic movie WITNESS,) you probably don’t realize the Amish usually “have no truck” with any form of law enforcement. Besides their desire for privacy, this is mostly because their people were hunted down and persecuted for their religion in Europe by those who were law enforcement officers there.
The Plain People have very long memories. Basically, they don’t trust anyone with a badge. And that has been one of the big challenges of writing thrillers set among these nonviolent people.
When I began FINDING MERCY and other books set in the same area (FALL FROM PRIDE and RETURN TO GRACE,) I knew a cop character would be needed to help solve serious crimes. My nephew had held such a post in rural Ohio, so I used him for a source. Jack Freeman, my fictional county sheriff, has had to work hard to earn the trust of the Amish. His love interest, also non-Amish who runs the local, popular country cookin’ restaurant, helps build this trust with Amish patrons and especially with her Amish staff. So, although the Amish heroine of each book works to solve a lethal crime, the local Plain People slowly learn to trust the sheriff during these novels.
Why do the Amish, after all these years away from persecution by the state churches of Europe, but now living in “the land of the free” which has protected their religious rights, still mistrust law enforcement today? Their past during which they were imprisoned and many burned at the stake (or often tied to wooden ladders and roasted) is part of their heritage they keep alive, so that they can encourage their young people to remain “a people apart.” Each Amish home has an illustrated BOOK OF MARTYRS with stories of their persecutions for their belief in adult baptism rather than infant baptism. And many of their current practices are directly related to those days of mistrust and terror.
Why do the Amish wear beards but not mustaches? Because their law enforcement enemies of earlier times had mustaches. Why do they refuse to use buttons on their clothes? The uniforms of their persecutors had many “prideful” buttons. Why have church services in different barns or homes every other Sunday instead of building a church? Because moving their worship service around in the old days meant a better chance of not being arrested. (Their services are still in High German.) The past among the Amish is still alive in more ways than just using horses-and-buggies.
This mistrust of law enforcement today makes for great tension in a thriller novel as does the setting itself. An area with no electricity, few phones to call for help and slow-moving buggies which make it hard to escape an enemy work well in a suspense plot. And there is nothing like a chase scene or the depth of darkness in a pitch black barn or a tall corn field to ratchet up suspense and fear.
I love to take my readers into this world of contrasts and crime. The Amish have a saying that “Life is not all cakes and quilts.” I think FINDING MERCY and my other Amish books take full advantage of that truth.
Karen Harper is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical fiction. A former secondary and university (Ohio State) English instructor, she now writes full time. She is the winner of the Mary Higgins Clark award for her Amish suspense DARK ANGEL and has written eight other thrillers set in Amish country. Karen and her husband divide their time between Ohio and Florida. Please visit her website here.