From anguish to freedomBy James C. Juhnke
The Amish/Mennonite publishing sensation of the spring of 2012 was a memoir by Ira Wagler, Growing Up Amish. According to the author’s blog, the book “rocketed into the stratosphere” with sales both in print and on Amazon Kindle. It rose to number three on The Wall Street Journal’s best-seller list.
Ira Wagler was the ninth of 11 children born to David L. and Ida Mae Yoder Wagler. His father was a prominent Old Order Amish writer — co-founder of Pathways Publishers and a prolific scribe for The Budget and Family Life. The family had moved from Daviess County in southern Indiana to Aylmer, Ont., and then, in an effort to keep the family from falling apart, to a farm in Bloomfield, Iowa. David supported his son in patterned Amish ways but could not offer compassion or forgiveness. Ira, a gifted writer as was his father, was unable to accept the challenge to “take up my father’s mantle.”
Wagler is a skillful storyteller. His short sentences, paragraphs and chapters make for easy reading. His coming-of-age narrative is compelling. Animating the story is a dramatic balance between the beauty of Amish life and the insupportable (for the author) pressure to conform to rules and regulations. On one hand Wagler writes winsome descriptions of Amish weddings, ordinations, farming and mutual aid. On the other hand he tells of an authoritarian father, guilt-inducing adolescent escapades and the oppressive belief that there is no salvation outside of the Amish regimen.
Wagler is willing to name names, including that of a leader in Ontario: a “hard-core Amish firebrand … [who] set out to please a furious, frowning God.” Even worse was the bishop who refused to help Wagler return to the church: “He was flat-out raving mad, as in crazy … the mad bishop of Ligonier, Indiana.”
Apparently Wagler used a pseudonym for the young women with whom he broke an engagement to be married: “There is no human penance anywhere that can ever atone for the wrong I did to her that night.”
Wagler describes himself not as an angry rebel but as a shy and troubled young man, spiritually anguished to the point of severe depression. The book is more about the author’s painful and repeated attempts to leave his people than it is about his growing up. He actually left four times — sometimes furtively, sometimes openly. Sometimes he left with a clear destination, another time without a plan. Always he was desperate. He was baptized, excommunicated and received back into fellowship but could not find Amish peace.
Finally, after nearly a decade of anguished young-adult searching, Wagler underwent an evangelical conversion. Alone in his room he received from Jesus the forgiveness that had been denied to him by his people. The dramatic conversion, which some readers may see as a formulaic literary climax, enabled Wagler to leave the Amish with peace of mind. Other readers, on their own journeys of escape from legalism, may find the conversion an inspiring model.
Today, 25 years after leaving the Amish, Wagler is at work on a sequel to his best-selling memoir. Recent posts on his blog suggest one theme will be “circling back” to his heritage. He lives in Lancaster County, Pa., and has treasured Old Order Amish friends. He notes that many Amish leavers find their places not far from Amish communities.
Wagler writes that one must make peace with the past. But his main passion is for freedom. For that ideal he is as effective a writer as was his father for traditional Amish ways. Despite the pains of breaking away, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
James C. Juhnke, of Wichita, Kan., is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.
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