Carrie Bradshaw -- in a Bonnet?

Novelist Cindy Woodsmall's Amish romances draw readers from all walks of life.

May 26, 2009, 10:36 AM

May 26, 2009 -- The Amish lead a private, rural lifestyle that hasn't changed for hundreds of years. It's a far cry from the glittery, gossipy, sexually carefree world of "Sex in the City" and its lead character, Carrie Bradshaw.

But the Amish now have their own Bradshaw, of sorts: Cindy Woodsmall, one of several best-selling authors who specialize in Amish-themed romance novels.

"People are seeing this quaint, peaceful-looking, picturesque view of [the Amish] and they want to know the real life," Woodsmall said.

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After a debut novel, "When the Heart Cries," Woodsmall chalked up two New York Times best-sellers: "When the Morning Comes" and "When the Soul Mends." The trilogy, known as "Sisters of the Quilt," tells the story of a conservative Amish woman as she comes of age, experiences tragedy and struggles with the demands of her world -- and her love for a young man from outside.

Woodsmall has a second Amish-based series in the works, set to launch in August with the publication of "The Hope of Refuge."

She is not alone as a writer of Amish romances. Indeed, the genre has its own nickname, "bonnet books," inspired by the traditional headdress of observant Amish women.

But Woodsmall, who is not Amish herself, dislikes the label.

"[A prayer cap] means a lot to them," she said. "It means probably more to them than our wedding bands."

Woodsmall was inspired to write about the Amish after growing up with a best friend who was an Amish Mennonite. During the years, she has earned the community's trust.

"I have some really good [conservative] Amish friends who read the manuscripts before they go to print," she said. "So they really help with the authenticity of it."

The books satisfy a curiosity readers have about a community that generally shuns the modern world.

Movies like "Witness," starring Kelly McGillis as an Amish woman, have provided glimpses into the world. And, in 2006, the country's attention was focused on the Amish way of life when five young Amish girls were shot to death in a one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. The male perpetrator was an outsider but was known to the community.

Unsurprisingly, the killings were tremendously difficult for the community to cope with. But it was the Amish capacity for forgiveness that surprised the outside world.

"Every person was willing to forgive the shooter from the very first day," Woodsmall said. "Their feeling is that God's power to redeem their tomorrow is greater than anything they could get by holding on to unforgiveness today."

Amish Romances Shed Light on Closed Life

In Woodsmall's books, the Amish are sinners and saints, good guys and bad guys, just like in the outside world. The Amish insisted on being portrayed with that honesty before they agreed to help her with her books.

And while she has many Amish readers, most are "Englishers" -- non-Amish. At a recent book signing at The Amish Farm and House in Lancaster, Pa., attendees included Tracey Berthiaume, who had driven more than four hours to meet Woodsmall.

"To me, it's just an interesting way of life," Berthiaume said, explaining her passion for the books. "Not something I could ever do, but an interesting way of life."

Cathy Voorhees said she had given copies of Woodsmall's books to her mother and aunt. "It's very intriguing," Voorhees said. "They are a very, very forgiving people. A very giving people. ... They just drop everything and come together as a community and help one another and you don't see that among us most of the time. We have too many things to do to bother."

Woodsmall agreed that part of the books' appeal lies in the communal spirit they portray.

"They are rooted in faith, family and community," she said. "And people want that. They want to see it and feel it and understand it, especially in the downturn on the economy."

Modesty is hugely important to the Amish. Men wear suspenders because a belt buckle would be considered too garish. They grow beards to signify that they are married instead of wearing a wedding ring, which would be ostentatious. Women make their long, buttoned dresses themselves. Only solid colors, with a black apron, are acceptable.

Such modesty means there's not a whole lot of sex in the books.

"We keep it very clean," Woodsmall said. "A 10-year-old could come by casually and pick it up and read."

Woodsmall's books do not portray a typical boy-meets-girl romance. The Amish, she said, have rules about how romance is written. "And I set the rules up beside my computer and try each day to break them," she said with a laugh.

The books draw much of their dramatic tension from the clash of an old-fashioned way of life and modern temptations and distractions. They are reminiscent of Victorian novels in that just a brief moment of holding hands can mean ecstasy, or unleash a flood of inner turmoil.

"There is just an innocence there," Woodsmall said. "Yes, there is the reality of how they feel, because they have the same feelings that anyone else would have, but they are going to hold it unto their faith."

Amish Romance: More to Come

It's a lifestyle that Woodsmall has been drawn to since childhood and now explores through her writing.

"There are parts of how they live that I would totally enjoy, but I would have to change my goals," she said.

For one thing, she would have to give up her laptop. Fortunately, for her enthusiastic readers (and her pleased publisher), that is not a sacrifice she is willing to make.