Book review: ‘Simple Pleasures’
In the creative nonfiction course I teach every spring, I talk about a memoirist’s ability to both convey personal experience and also make connections with an audience. This interplay between the individual and the universal is what can make reading a memoir a powerful experience.
Marianne Jantzi’s Simple Pleasures: My Life as an Amish Mother reminded me of this principle, if only because little in Jantzi’s life is familiar to me, though I am also a mother: not her exuberant crafting with her young children; not the cooking she does with a wood stove; not the complexities she faces when riding with her family in a buggy; not any number of daily activities she completes without the assistance of modern technologies.
And yet, there are ways I could wholly relate to Jantzi, as she uses her experience to connect with her readers, showing that despite our vastly different lives we share many of the joys and frustration that are fundamental to the parenting enterprise. In this way, Simple Pleasures succeeds as a memoir, giving readers a glimpse into the unique challenges of living as an Amish woman in Ontario while also creating space for us to see that the Amish are not so different from their English neighbors after all.
Simple Pleasures does not necessarily follow a linear storyline. The book is organized thematically, with sections dedicated to topics like housekeeping, raising children and the community in which Jantzi lives. The topical groups seem broadly construed as well. Because so much of Jantzi’s experience involves her children, they appear throughout the book and even grow in number. (Jantzi now has four children, though the older three, Alyssa, Eric and Kyle, are featured most prominently in Simple Pleasures; the family added another daughter in April 2015.)
This lack of a narrative trajectory may seem problematic for some readers, though the episodic nature of Simple Pleasures should be seen as one of the book’s strengths, in great part because the short vignettes replicate, in many ways, Jantzi’s life within her community: a life that is rich and meaningful but that also follows a fairly well-established pattern. Such repetition, with variation, will be familiar to readers who have raised small children and who are familiar with the adage that when parenting children, the days may be slow but the years are fast.
Still, the best parts of Jantzi’s Simple Pleasures include sections detailing life in her Amish community, as well as her work as co-owner, with her husband, Allan, of a shoe store. Jantzi unwinds several humorous stories about her customers at the store, who “keep life spicy.” She also expresses well her frustration with some aspects of being business owners, including the navigation of technological advances like filing taxes using the government’s automated voice system.
Jantzi is a skilled writer, having honed her writing voice and style in her work as a columnist for The Connection, a print magazine tailored to Amish readers. In Simple Pleasures, the brief, slice-of-life stories and light tone are reminiscent of parenting blogs. Herald Press, the book’s publisher, notes in its promotional material that Jantzi “would easily be a popular Mommy Blogger if her faith permitted a computer.”
Simple Pleasures addresses some of the conflicts a popular mommy blogger might face: recognizing that readers know more about a writer’s family than might be comfortable, or discovering that a blog post (or in Jantzi’s case, a column) had been grist for dinnertime conversation. Knowing that others are discussing her family’s life makes her feel as if her “pen were on a leash.” But she acknowledges the need to “overcome shyness” and continue to write her stories.
Lacking computers and the internet does not mean Jantzi has remained free of the pressures of 21st-century life. In this way, too, readers will connect with Jantzi, who acknowledges significant stressors for plain people as well. Like her neighbors, Jantzi wants “well-behaved children with neat, clean clothes” and a well-kept home. Like her neighbors, Jantzi plays the comparison game, measuring herself against the women around her and finding herself wanting.
“In the midst of our comings and goings,” Jantzi writes, “we forget to be happy, contented keepers of the home.” Her advice to counter these stressors seems fitting for Amish and non-Amish alike: “Spend a little time each day talking with our Creator, who is capable of carrying the heaviest stress loads. . . . Thank God for the blessings of a family and church who will help with the stress of financial and work overload if necessary.” It’s clear, from the stories Jantzi tells, that she uses these practices to keep herself grounded when the pressures of raising kids, keeping her home, sustaining a garden and running a shoe store seem overwhelming.
Throughout Simple Pleasures, we see the benefits of living in a close community where people lend help with everything from child-raising to celebrating rites of passage like marriages and funerals to harvesting crops and raising money for the Milverton Amish school fund. Jantzi writes: “The tradition of helping each other is a blessing of our community life.” Her book bears witness to this tradition, to the people who work and worship together and to the simple joy that comes from sharing life with others, sustaining a precious heritage.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.
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