Paul L. Gaus has been studying the Amish culture in Holmes County, Ohio for thirty years, and he has thirty years of stories to tell. It's too bad we only had forty minutes to hear the author of the Ohio Amish-Country mystery stories talk about his books.
Gaus was born and raised in Ohio, and he has lived in Wooster, Ohio, for the past thirty-three years with his wife, Madonna. His interest in fiction writing was a result of college classes he taught. His students examined a variety of American cultures, and he often took students to Holmes County on field trips. On the advice and encouragement of Tony Hillerman, he began working on mystery novels set among the Amish of Holmes County. His first book, Blood of the Prodigal, was published in June of 1999, followed by five more. However, the books are being republished by Plume, a division of Penguin Group (USA). The series will be title The Amish-Country Mysteries. Blood of the Prodigal, and Broken English have been released, with the others to follow, about once a month for the next four months.
Paul began by telling us if you want to meet the Amish in Holmes County, it's helpful to drive a sports car. He described the countryside as rolling hills, with hardwood forests and creeks. The Amish settled there because the land was similar to the farmland in Germany where they originated.
One fall day, Gaus drove his Miata convertible to Millersburg, the county seat of Holmes County. He parked at the courthouse, an old stone building reminiscent of the old Carnegie libraries. There's a red brick jail on the square, and a Civil War monument, common to small midwestern towns, and a patch of grass in front of the courthouse.
While he was parked, a small Amish man came over to his car. He was about sixty-years-old, dressed properly Amish with a blue denim outfit, a vest with hooks, not buttons, work boots, and a black felt hat. He glared at Gaus in his Miata, and then started making jokes, bad jokes. "How many horses are under the hood of that?" "How many oats do you need to feed your horses?" And, then he said he had a serious situation. "How about you driving me to Nashville?" Well, Gaus went to Holmes County to meet the Amish, and he thought the man only meant Nashville, Ohio. But, would he drive him to Nashville, Tennessee if that's where he wanted to go? He decided yes, but fortunately, it was Ohio.
The man managed to get into the low seat in the Miata, and they headed out on the black top country curvy country roads. When they went over a hill, and hit the straightaway, the man said, "Just so you'll know, I've always wanted to say I went 100 miles per hour."
Paul took Andy Weaver to a machine shop first. And, he went in, talked to the man, made an agreement, and shook hands. Once Andy was back in the car, he said to Gaus, "Fellow thinks he's hot stuff. Spray a little gravel when you pull out." It was like that all day. They went to a carpentry shop, and Andy went in, made his arrangements, and came out. They went to a leather shop, a wheel shop, a saw blades shop. It was 11:30 at night when Gaus dropped Weaver off at the bus depot.
Andy Weaver travels around on Greyhound buses. He buys broken down sawmills from Amish families, and has them hauled up through Holmes County. He stopped at all the shops, because the sawmills will go to all of those shops to be repaired on their way to Weaver's home in Minnesota. He makes a good living. By the time he gets back to Minnesota, the sawmills are all sitting on his lawn. He sells them to Amish families all over the country. So, he's rich, but he never even bought Gaus lunch. About 5:00, he did suggest to a family that they were hungry, so they did get an Amish cooked dinner at that house.
One day, clear out of the blue, Gaus answered the phone to hear Andy say, "How about if you drive me to West Virginia?" Andy Weaver was living a proper Old Amish lifestyle. He was in the sawmill business, and making a living. He was probably a millionaire. He couldn't farm anymore. He had divided his farm among his sons.
In Holmes County, Ohio, the land has disappeared, paved over, divided between sons. Taxes are too high, and the cost of farmland is steep. Young boys can't farm. Middle-aged men have taken jobs off farms. That's what will change the Amish society. Twenty-five years ago, they would have said all people were intended to live as peasant farmers. The Amish are set apart and cloistered from society. But, things are changing out in Holmes County. So, the Amish are moving to other states, looking for farmland, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa.
Asked about the Mennonites, Gaus said they're not the same, although they are similar. They both rose in the 16th and 17th century in Germany. In fact, the Amish are not the same. There are twenty-five different types of Amish congregations in Holmes County. The Amish try to be just like everyone else, so they're not considered prideful. They call us "High and Mighty," because we dress as individuals. To be truly Amish, they must submerge their identity into the identity of the congregation.
One summer day, Gaus parked the Miata on a ridge overlooking a pasture. The hay was fresh mowed. And, he was enjoying the view, when off in the distance he heard the annoying, growling sound of a weed-whacker. Then, he heard that noise go behind the barn below, then the next building, and then it curled behind him, over his head, and swooped, and landed in front of him. It was a radio-controlled airplane. Down below was a ten-year-old boy, dressed in proper Amish clothing. He waved the control box at Gaus to show he was the one who buzzed the car with the airplane.
When Paul went down to that farm, he found something peculiar at the driveway. When he drove into the driveway, it broke the plane of an infrared beam, and down in the shop, a man knew to come out. He was not farming, either. Jonas had divided his lands for his sons. He drives a buggy. He's Old Amish, and he's not going against his Bishop's wishes.
Jonas' first job off the farm had been doing electrical wiring in RVs in Indiana. He became interested in electricity, and took correspondence courses to learn. He studied electric circuits, passed that, and then studied electronics. He continued to study, microelectronics, computer chips, all of it through the mail. Now, he installs high-security system in English (non-Amish) homes. In fact, Gaus had him put a system in his house. So, Jonas goes all over the Midwest to install those systems. He has a Buick station wagon and a chauffeur to drive it. The chauffeur owns the car, and drives, because Jonas isn't allowed to drive.
P.L. Gaus has been traveling Holmes County, Ohio for thirty years, studying how and why the Amish live the way they do. So, he puts as much as he can about the Amish in his mysteries. The Amish are pacifists, in fact the most convincing pacifists. So, Gaus made a bargain with his readers that it was not going to be Amish people who committed murder in his books.
The books feature three men, and the women in their lives. There's Michael Branden, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Caroline. There's the sheriff, and his wife, the Holmes County medical examiner. And, there's the pastor of a small church. So, Gaus' books are bout friendships in small towns in the Midwest.
And, he writes murder mysteries, because he likes them, and they say write what you like. And, mysteries provide a great opportunity to illuminate a culture. Tony Hillerman proved that with his mysteries about the Navajo. Gaus writes about how Amish people lives, and why they live that way. They have scriptural reasons for all of their choices. They don't have electricity, cars, insurance. They're exotic, although they're all plain as can be. The Amish are immune to worries of ordinary life that we ponder. They're set apart, and don't need us at all.
The first six books in the series were published by Ohio University Press, and they did fairly well in the Midwest. For an author starting out, it was a good experience. But, a Penguin editor has picked up the whole series for the Plume division. In six months, all six of the books will have been reprinted. The whole series will be available by February. Gaus has written a seventh book, Harmless as Doves. It opens with a confession to murder by an Amish twenty-year-old who confesses to his Bishop that he had just killed a man. If it looks as if Gaus broke faith with his readers by making an Amish man a killer, it's because in the last couple years there have been two murders by the Amish.
Paul told us there was an Amish man who borrowed the first book, Blood of the Prodigal, from a neighbor who had all of them. He read it, liked it, and asked to borrow the next one. He passed Broken English among his family. When he borrowed the third book, he told the neighbor the books were so authentic, and to think they were all true. When the neighbor told him they weren't true, he turned bright red, and went storming out. He angry that they weren't true. A few weeks later, he came back and apologized, but the Bishop in his district didn't permit them to read fiction. Gaus took it as a great compliment that the man found them that authentic.
P.L. Gaus has made friends among the Amish. One day, he walked down a steep gravel lane toward a red barn. He was worn out, and hot, and he heard a high voice call out, "Drink of cold spring water?" He heard it, but didn't see anyone. So, he continued on toward the barn, and heard it again, "Drink of cold spring water?" He went over to the barn, looked in and there was an Amish man, a dwarf. he had a goiter on his neck the size of a football. He was missing three fingers from an accident. Gaus took some of his college students to meet him. He was the happiest man Paul has ever known. Everything he did was right out of the Bible, including the way he dressed, with suspenders, no leather belt.
One of the Amish orders lives as close to the soil as possible. They've never been to a city. They have no bank accounts, shopping centers, pharmacies. They see cities as evil. They've dug in as peasant farmers.
There are other writers who tackle the Amish culture. Linda Castillo approaches the culture from the outside. Her character, a sheriff named Berkholder, is not particularly sympathetic to the Amish since she was part of that culture at one time. In her books, the sleuth comes from without to solve the crime.
But, Gaus' stories start in Amish society, and draw you through it, so you can think of the mystery as the Amish do. The seventh book in the series will be out this summer.
Asked about the practice of dividing land between the suns, Gaus said the Amish manage their estates in order to control the behavior of the children; "I have land, and, if you live a proper life, you might get some of it." It comes from the European tradition that land stays in the family, and pieces are given to the sons. With the lack of land, fathers don't have as much leverage with their estates.
Paul was asked if the Amish had any sort of government or leaders. He said they do have strict government policies. A Bishop is in charge of a congregation. Each congregation is entirely separate, ruled entirely by the Bishop. They rule everything from how men cut their hair to how many pleats must be in a dress. The Bishop also presides over religious aspects of life, baptisms, marriages. They interpret the scripture. They have authority over everything. Gaus said that's why he was careful to say Andy Weaver and Jonas were both in compliance with the wishes of their Bishop.
There are 250,000 Amish in North America, and they're growing at a rate three or four times that of the English population. A congregation usually consists of thirty families, including all the children. And, you can drive through the county and see one-room schoolhouses.
How are the Bishops selected? They're chosen by lot. The person who draws the short straw becomes the new Bishop. That's also based on scripture. In the Book of Acts, the Apostles needed to select a new twelfth Apostle after Judas' death. So, they drew lots.
But, they don't allow just anyone to become Bishop. The nominate the best men in the congregation, those that are seriously versed in scripture. They must have led a sober lifestyle. There are four or five Bibles put in a room, and there's a slip of paper in one Bible, at the passage about the Apostles drawing lots. The man who selects that Bible is Bishop for life.
Gaus knew a thirty-seven-year-old man who had just been elected Bishop. He asked Paul all kinds of questions about the English and sexuality. Some were so detailed it made Gaus blush. The man apologized for making him uncomfortable, but said the kids see videos, and all kinds of things, and ask questions. So, he had been looking for an English scoundrel to answer his questions since he didn't know how to answer the kids.
When someone in the audience expressed surprise that the kids had seen videos, Gaus said they all have cell phones under their pillows, although they're not supposed to. But, they have access to cell phones because many of the Amish are so wealthy. The tourist industry is vast and profitable in Holmes County. The Amish sell everything - quilts, dry goods, baskets, desks, and other furniture. Money runs in an underground economy. It's not reported. It's all cash, never in the bank. The Amish have money. They don't vote. They do pay property taxes. But, they don't pay social security taxes, and, if they don't have to, don't pay income taxes.
Asked whether the intermarriage caused any problems with disabilities, Gaus said there are a number of genetic problems. There are hundreds of dwarfs in Holmes County. There are some disorders that are known only among the Amish. If you see gravestones, most are of children. Life is dangerous on an Amish farm. They have ancient farm equipment.
One question was about marriages, and Paul said most are not arranged. But, the Bishops are aware of genetic danger, so young people are encouraged to travel to far-flung Amish communities in search of a spouse.
People don't leave the Amish community very often. Occasionally they are expelled, shunned, but not often. The Amish retain more than 90% of their children. They do answer census questions. They won't vote for President or sheriff, though, because those people have the power to take a life. And, remember the Amish are pacifists.
P.L. Gaus' appearance on his tour for the Ohio Amish-Country Mysteries, was one of our most successful recent Authors @ The Teague programs.
I have been a library manager/administrator for over 30 years, in Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and, now, Indiana. Winner of the 2011 Arizona Library Association Outstanding Library Service Award. I am a contributing Book Reviewer for Library Journal, Mystery Readers Journal, ReadertoReader.com and VibrantNation.com. Winner of the 2009 and 2010 Spinetingler Awards for Best Reviewer. First Fan Guest of Honor for Desert Sleuths Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Write Now! Conference.
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