My Amish Roots: A During* View

One of the first pieces of Shawn Smucker’s writing I read was a blog post. I don’t remember the topic, but I do remember thinking that I would read anything he wanted to write about. Even his shortest posts are punctuated with tangible scenes painted with a confident hand and a grasp of human fragility. He does it without being self-conscious or heavy-handed.

Shawn got my attention when he shared a few months back that he was working on a book called, “My Amish Roots.” Because we share Pennsylvania foundations, and because we’d had a few brief discussions about the role of place on our identity, I was curious to see if these themes would make an appearance in his book.

“My Amish Roots,” is, on the face, a family history. But faces are deceptive, and a raise of the eyebrow can have any number meanings. We’ve all poured over the black and white photo albums, stiff squares of contrast mirror faces back to us. We peer at the eyes and the noses and the chins, trying to discern a resemblance.

Shawn opens his family photo album to us, revealing much more than the curve of a jaw or the bushiness of eyebrows. He takes us on a whirlwind tour back in time, to 17th century Germany and the ancestor who brought his family on a winding journey to Lancaster, PA. On the way, we meet the characters that formed the origins ofhis character, dug deep roots into the soil of the land.

Here is Shawn’s talent, rising off the page like a summer mist. His blog indicates a fondness for great American writers, among them Steinbeck. And while I am reluctant to compare anyone to such a giant storyteller, there is an echo of that distinctly American voice in Shawn’s writing. When I think I have read a fantastic simile he doesn’t rest, but brings me one more. And he layers them with a skill that builds the story, adding texture and nuance. Consider this passage regarding the passing of his great grandmother:

Relatives later told me that her eyes remained closed most of the time during her last days, her lips a flat timeline nearing its end. Everything around her faded, just as she was fading away from those around her.

Shawn writes about his ancestors with a keen eye for historic accuracy, family pride and the knowledge that we—none of us—is perfect. This is not some trumped up family hoo-rah, but a look at the marriages and deaths and comings and goings that led to his existence on earth, at this time and place.

And place is the anchor of the book. We see it from the very beginning. While comparing the lush farmland of south central PA to the countryside of England, the reader senses an appreciation for both. The reader becomes aware of the author’s sure affinity for one over the other, even if the author came to this realization late. This is what has been, so far, the crux of the book. The way a place and its people can be as much a part of our identity as the color of our hair or the way we walk.

I couldn’t wait to finish the book to share my thoughts about what I’ve read so far. “My Amish Roots” has a multi-pronged draw; it is history, story, saga, the biography of a land, and a man’s exploration for meaning.

*I’m still reading the book, ergo “during view.”

Shawn lives in Paradise, Pennsylvania with his wife, four children, four chickens, and a rabbit named Rosie. HIs most recent book, My Amish Roots, explores the roles of family, death, life, tradition, and legacy against the backdrop of his Amish ancestry. He blogs daily at about writing, the strange things his children say, and postmodern Christianity. Find him on facebook and twitter.

My Amish Roots (signed copy):

My Amish Roots (Amazon link):