The PopCult Bookshelf
This is the book tie-in with Amish Mafia, a reality show that was the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, and which just ended its run on The Discovery Channel earlier this week, the day this book was published. Written by the show’s star, “Lebanon” Levi Stoltzfus, with his co-author, Ellis Henican, the book promises to “blow the lid off of the secrets of the Amish community.”
The book is packed with revelations about Amish life. Divided into three sections, the middle part of the book is a mix of “true crime” anecdotes and other surprising chapters that reveal more to the reader than is commonly shown in media portrayals. All of this material is well-sourced and verifiable. This part of the book runs the gamut from sordid stories of sexual abuse to tales of puppy mills and drug deals with motorcycle gangs, mixed in with success stories and the big shocker–many Amish have become multi-millionaires due to the fracking boom.
But while the middle part of the book is a sizable portion, it’s not the best part of the book. Before we get into that, you have to understand the appeal of Amish Mafia. While the program was a “reality” show, it played more like an extended, four-season-long SCTV sketch. Nobody was watching this show because they thought it was real. It was as real as the storylines in professional wrestling.
Amish Mafia was a big dumb, but clever, comic soap opera, loaded with outrageous situations and clearly staged happenings. Over the course of four seasons we were treated to cross-dressing Amish, Amish chat lines, rogue Mennonites who drove beater cars that were spray-painted flat black from bumper-to-bumper, a crazed Amish prophet with a pot conviction in his past, lots and lots of explosions which included a shed blown up with bags of cow farts, all of this under the watchful eye of an Amish Mafia boss who patrolled the countryside in a black Escalade while using a cell phone.
“Lebanon” Levi was that mob boss, and you would think that his involvement would seriously damage the credibility of this book.
But it doesn’t. Amish Confidential is a brisk, entertaining and even enlightening read. Stoltzfus is far more likeable in print than he was on TV, where he came across as wannabe crime lord who was really a bit of a bumpkin. Here he tells his life story as someone raised as an Old Order Amish in a blended family of seventeen. He talks about growing up Amish, but also reveals his own dissatisfaction with elements of the church that began when he was still a child.
Co-author, Ellis Henican, plays his role here to a “T.” Like a good rythym guitarist, you don’t even notice that he’s there. The autobiographical segments sound legitimately like the voice of Stoltzfus. The middle portion of the book, with all the tales of Amish misadventures, takes on a more journalistic tone. Henican does not get in the way of Stoltzfus, and it makes for a stronger book.
The first hundred-plus pages of the book tell Stoltzfus’ story, up to a point before he began work on Amish Mafia. Prior to his reality TV stardom he was a New Order Amish (I’m guessing that’s sort of like a Reform Jew, but for some reason I’m hearing “Blue Monday” in my head) who worked in construction, and though he doesn’t mention it in the book, was also a volunteer fireman. In a very natural and conversational tone, he lays out his life and his decision, after an extended “Rumspringa,” to forego his Old Order Amish upbringing for a more lenient branch of the Amish faith.
In Amish communities, Rumspringa is a period that starts when a person turns sixteen. Basically they are free to go into the secular world (although according to Stoltzfus, it’s not as wild and free as the media would like you to think). This comes to an end when the adolescents decide to settle down and be baptized into the Amish faith. Stoltzfus spent eight years in Rumspringa and details his decisions made along the way.
This is a very compelling read. Stoltzfus comes across as a thoughtful, likeable guy who has some serious concerns about the current state of the Amish people. He bemoans the lack of education, since Amish kids only go to school for eight years, and are therefore not represented in professional fields like medicine and law. The reluctance of approaching “English” law enforcement makes it hard to crack down on sexual predators and abusers in the Amish community. This book could lay the groundwork for Stoltzfus to become a real advocate for the Amish people, if his connection to the show doesn’t prevent that.
Amish Confidential combines a good, brief biography with a series of stories that do indeed pull back the curtain and expose some harsh secrets about what’s going on in the Amish world as well as the people who profit from keeping these secrets out of the public eye.
People might not be willing to plunk down their share of the two-billion-dollar Amish tourist industry if they knew that the quilt they just paid big money for was made in China, or that the rustic farm they just drove past contained a puppy mill. Amish Confidential shines a light on the darker secrets of the Amish.
What this book does not deliver is dirt on the production of the show, Amish Mafia. A few chapters at the end touch on the campaign against the show by politicians like former Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Corbett, but Stoltzfus’ other cast members are only mentioned in passing, if at all. This is a tell-all book about the Amish, but not about Amish Mafia.
That’s a book I’d really be eager to read. I’d love to know what were the kernals of truth buried within the charmingly goofy and implausible BS that made Amish Mafia so enjoyable. The production logistics alone would be fascinating. I’d love to know what the editing process was like and which cast members were the hardest to wrangle. Sadly, that will have to wait for another time.
Amish Confidential does deliver an eye-opening look at a misunderstood group of people. Maybe if this takes off (and it’s currently ranked #1 in a few catagories at Amazon), we’ll get the inside scoop on the production of Amish Mafia.