Idyllic Places

Russel Saltzman is an accessible essayist, who when he is not writing about belief in and of itself, writes of everyday ways where belief intersects with culture. Still Amish romance was the last thing I would expect him to address. Yet he did so just recently in a review of Wedding at the Orange Blossom Inn, a book by Shelby Shepherd Gray who has written more than 20 Amish romances. Saltzman is not a connoisseur of romance and his reading of one such novel can hardly be a thing we expect him to repeat, but having been assigned one for the online magazine Aletia, he took to the task.

I reference Saltzman because without him I would not know who Shelby Gray is, but when she is referenced by one like Saltzman, you take it on yourself to find out, even if out of morbid curiosity. Her website shows she is not only a prolific writer of Amish romance (all of them are) but also takes a particular interest in a village called Sugarcreek Ohio, where she has set seven novels.

I will not go into the idea of an Amish romance as I know nothing of them other than they are usually written by evangelical women and involve a terrific number of buggy crashes. Besides never having read one and never intending to do so, it is really a thing I am little qualified to write about. What I do have is a little knowledge of a geography common to Amish romance and it is the geography that this post considers as I reflect on the idyllic.

Sugarcreek is located in Tuscawarus County just over the Holmes County line, where one can find the world’s largest Amish settlement. Sugarcreek itself is not Amish, but historically Swiss. My guess is Gray sets her work here as it is more charming to have books named for Sugarcreek than a place like Millersburg where one is more apt to find the Amish. Regardless, that is really of little matter, because the greater reason Gray would use this geography is it gives one much respite and little in the way of offence, unless offended by cuckoo clocks of which Sugarcreek claim’s to have the world’s largest. If you write Amish romance, you are likely going out of your way to create as little offense as possible and to paint an idyllic world that has little to do with the Amish or the reality of the communities where you set your writing. The reality doesn’t matter as what you have to do is create an escape for readers who inhabit a world inundated by everything except the idyllic.

And when you need the idyllic, Sugarcreek is the place to go.

I first saw the place in 1997. I was en route to the Monongahela Valley in Pennsylvania. (When you live in Chicago, you often find yourself escaping to places of quiet with a topography.) Sugarcreek was an accidental discovery along the way, though it fit the idyllic bill making it worth a visit.

Yesterday while journaling I reflected of how often I came near the village in my young adult years when I would travel from central to eastern Ohio to provide volunteer help at a developmental center, which has since closed. I never found those trips idyllic. The drives were, as my friends and I would leave Marion County and meander through the Mohican area and finally to (name omitted), but the visits were not. We always left appreciative that our usual volunteer work was in a place that provided good services to those with intellectual disabilities, but the lack of care we saw in______________ was sobering.

Half a life later I do my work in place that provides services for those with intellectual disability. It is idyllic, but it is large and the target of those who would like to close anyplace large. (I do much to counter that argument in my work, so I will not do so here.) My work is also in dense and urban Chicago where the word idyllic would hardly be uttered.

Only a few would call the rural geography of northeast and east central Ohio as anything other than idyllic, at least in appearance. And when I need the idyllic, it is here I return.

I can go into why this is the case. It is mostly based on a connection to others, but there is also the pastoral part of it which enhances the stories of affinity I have there. I do not have to paint a picture of this pastoral quality; the likes of barns and autumn sunsets reside deeply in the American imagination. Places like these are, in the minds of many, little challenged by the complexity of urbanity, which the majority of American share.

But the idyllic is more complex than this. I can call it pastoral and non-urban. I can think of it when I drive 250 or better miles. I can mix the stories of family and friends with golden fields and rich foods. I can do this because what it is to me is what it is not to others, a form of escape from the din of a metro area with 10 million people. Fact is a place is idyllic only because it is a rarity, a reminder of an undiscovered country. It is never had when a place is every day.

I mentioned I had one story back in the place of my idyllic escapes that was in no way that way. The fact is when I lived in Ohio and the drives into Amish country were common, I had many. When I return now it is always as much nostalgia as anything. This always diminishes a little of what is real of a place. Those who live nestled among the Sugarcreeks of the world know this. Their lives are not about gaining five pounds eating fry pies in the course of a week or listening to the chimes of a giant cuckoo. It is also not about the idealized world of Amish romance. Their lives are working the land of their Anabaptist ancestors or if they are “English” trudging off to a place like Akron to order up their work a day world.

I will return to my idyllic place for one always returns to a place called home. I will walk in forests that are daily changing color and watch the combines bring in the harvest. I will fatten myself on fry pies and listen to the last of the crickets as I breath in cool country air. There will be apple cider and hot chocolate and pumpkins and hay. And of course there will be those there who remind me the idyllic is not only about a place but those who inhabit it. For these, they will be in their everyday world. And When I tell them the kindest words and warmest hearts are found in Ohio, they will only smile and say “yes perhaps, but I always thought those were in Chicago.”

Perhaps the idyllic is not found in only the pastoral and a lack of complexity, for life is never really always these things. Perhaps it is found in those who have given these things the greatest of meaning.