December 2010

Tension between old and new charges Amish mystery series

By P.L. Gaus
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When the word “Amish” comes up, it brings a slew of quick impressions: quiet, innocent, simple, non-violent. In Clouds Without Rain, the third in P.L. Gaus’s Amish-Country mystery series (originally published by Ohio State University Press) the author has added a slightly different shading to one particular Amish community, one that is sure to remain in readers’ minds for a long time.

Michael Branden, professor of Civil War history in a local college and newly deputized in the Holmes County, Ohio, sheriff’s office, is clopping about in a borrowed horse and buggy in Amish garb, seeking to apprehend a couple of teenagers in Amish dress who are robbing “the Peaceful Ones” as they travel in their slow-moving vehicles. His part-time undercover work is interrupted by a deadly crash between a semitrailer rig and a horse-drawn vehicle. Branden begins to work with sheriff’s deputies on the incident, one that comes to look more like a homicide than an accident, and his two assignments begin to intersect.

Branden gets better acquainted with a newly appointed Amish bishop, whose intellect and intentions are anything but simple, as well as members of the religious community he leads. Their deep roots in the land are matched against a powerful money-making land scheme certain to test the group’s ethical and religious underpinnings. Branden’s role as an “outsider” gives him a curious advantage, as he goes beneath a placid-seeming exterior of the Amish community to understand the effect that disaffected youth, warring religious factions and the siren call of big money have on the group, increasingly enmeshed in the modern world they try to avoid.

Gaus himself has lived in Ohio and written about Amish Country for more than 30 years. In his own online “Ohio Amish Journal,” the author explains that his aim is “to illuminate Amish culture as much as possible in the context of a mystery story.” His remarkable prose reflects the deceptively simple, sometimes stark lifestyle of these religious folk, with its affecting descriptions of clothes drying on a line, crops wilting in the heat of a flat summer sun, and the beauty of an Amish table, where “the polished lazy Susan held a pitcher of water, two glasses, a bowl of chipped ice, slices of a fruit-nut bread, and apple butter in a canning jar.”

This series is all about surfaces and the deep waters that may lie beneath, in a culture of contrasts where old and new share a sometimes uneasy co-existence.

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