P.L. Gaus, author of The Amish-Country Mysteries: G is for Gaus. I was lucky to sit with Paul and his wife at Malice Domestic. You'll love his books that give you an insight into another culture. Great sense of place.
P. L. Gaus is the author of six books in the Amish-Country Mystery series. He lives in Wooster, Ohio, an area that is close to the world’s largest settlement of Amish and Mennonite people. Gaus lectures widely about the lifestyles, culture, and religion of the Amish. Read more about his unique experiences at P. L. Gaus’s Ohio Amish Journal.
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P. L. Gaus:
At nearly every appearance I have made, I have been asked why I write murder mysteries about Amish people, who are plainly among the most peaceful Americans anyone knows, and my answer is always in two parts. First, Amish society is infinitely fascinating to me, and I believe it deserves to be better understood. Second, murder mysteries are especially fun (I don’t need to explain that to anyone in this audience), and crime fiction gives us what I think is the best opportunity in popular literature to explore the human condition. I’ll elaborate.
How can Amish people not be fascinating? They hold themselves apart from the rest of us. They travel only in horse-drawn vehicles. They farm the old ways, eschewing most modern conveniences in life. They worship privately. And they hold to Christian pacifism more doggedly than they hold to their own safety and wellbeing. Then, crime fiction connects naturally with all of the underlying reasons for conflict, and an examination of motive is really an examination of the human condition. Our passions expose the rawest and most authentic emotional dilemmas. But why combine these two – Amish and murder? A bishop near Batavia, NY, once asked me at a talk I gave at the local library why I write murders mysteries about Amish people. The answer that appeased him the most is that I do not write for an Amish audience. I write for English people who want to know more about Amish society.
In each of my novels, I explore an issue that is pivotal in Amish society, and there is usually a scriptural theme that is the focus of the plot and of the choices the characters face. In Blood of the Prodigal, the theme was repentance and forgiveness surrounding a shunning event. In Broken English, I examined Amish pacifism with a story about a vengeance quest. Clouds without Rain was about authoritarian leadership, through the vehicle of broken leadership and lapse of faith. In Cast a Blue Shadow, I wrote about child abuse in a closed society. The choice every Amish teenager faces about taking the vows to live Amish was the theme in A Prayer for the Night. The dilemma of interactions and compromises with the modern word of science and medicine was the issue in Separate from the World. And in Harmless as Doves, I wrote about the need we all have for forgiveness, from the viewpoint of several characters who understood this to widely varying degrees.
My stories are also about life in small-town America, where everyone knows everyone else, and where friendships last a lifetime. It’s a place of quiet competence, steadfast loyalties, and sturdy moralities. My three main protagonists are like this, as are the strong women in their lives. Sheriff Bruce Robertson, Pastor Caleb Troyer, and Professor Michael Branden have been friends since kindergarten, and as strong as their friendship is, the strain of a case often divides them sharply. These characters give me my connection to law enforcement, religion, and academia. Their wives and families give me the opportunity to portray these men with soft lighting and close familiarity. Then men are not complete without their families, and the women often out-think the men on the more subtle points of a case.
For my setting, The Amish-Country Mysteries are parked on the numerous cultural divides in Holmes County, Ohio, where the world’s largest Amish and Mennonite settlement is found. English folk are perplexed and challenged by Amish folk. One type of Amish sect is pitched against another. The differences are highlighted in a mix of cultures that nevertheless seems peacefully and gracefully to get along for the most part. Where could an author find a better source of material?
I have been traveling the back roads and lesser gravel lanes of Holmes County, Ohio, for nearly thirty-five years, now, and the material for my novels comes from my experiences there, watching the culture, talking with people, wandering through the countryside. I seem to have an excellent ability to remember detail (I was a chemistry professor for thirty-one years, and I have an eye for detail), and I have met hundreds of fascinating people. At library, bookstore, and literary appearances, I almost always tell stories about the Amish people I have met in Holmes County, and each story I tell gives me a chance to illustrate some important point about Amish culture. There was the one-armed Amish entrepreneur who traveled the southern and Midwestern states to buy broken down sawmills, which he shipped to his home in Minnesota after they were refurbished in Holmes County. He makes quite a handsome profit reselling these sawmills to Amish families around the country, and incidentally, he lost his arm at a young age in his father’s sawmill. He is a proper old order Amish man in every aspect of life, and he is not in trouble with his bishop for any infractions of the rules. But he has managed to earn a living doing something other than farming. In a similar, way, I once met an old order Amish man who’s first job many years ago in Indiana was to install electric wiring in travel trailers.
Finally, the one other question that I always get at talks, lectures and appearances I give is: “How do you know your stories are authentic?” By that people almost always mean ‘true-to-life.’ My best answer is the story of an old order Amish man who read several of my novels and remarked to the neighbor from whom he had borrowed them that, “These are such marvelous stories. And just think - they are all true!” When she told him that they were works of fiction from start to finish, he became angry, announcing with some considerable consternation that his bishop did not permit his congregants to read fiction. As an author, I take it as a high complement to the stories that at least one Amish fellow thought they were entirely plausible.
That’s precisely the kind of authenticity I have been striving for in The Amish-Country Mysteries – to illuminate Amish culture so thoroughly that even the practitioners will think it is real.
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