Ira Wagler‘s memories of Growing up Amish provide a fascinating insight into Amish life and culture. At times he comes across as slightly cynical, but he also writes with warmth and wit. Ira has a very easy reading style, a little unpolished perhaps, but he keeps the reader’s interest effortlessly. The book opens with Ira sneaking through the night, running away from home, his community and whole way of life at the age of seventeen. From those opening words, he draws you in as he shares matter-of-factly about his birth. As child number nine, his birth was apparently not a great event in the Wagler family.
Horses and buggies, bearded men (but not moustached because that would be unbiblical), and flowing homemade dresses provide an apparently idyllic setting. As Ira’s account of his childhood and adolescence progresses, he gradually builds up suspense. You know that he’s going to leave the community, but when? And why? What will tip him over the edge and force him to go? The first time he leaves, sneaking away into the night with just a note for his parents, he is naive. It’s not a well-planned move. And before too long, he is forced to return home. This happens another couple of times over the next nine or ten years, sometimes with his closest childhood friends, sometimes alone. He shares honestly his struggle with trying to heed the constant advice to ‘just decide to do what’s right and then do it’, as one-by-one his friends have done. Ira longed for true freedom. He sought it in the Amish community, going through the arduous processes of baptism and church membership in a desperate bid for inner peace. He didn’t find it. He sought it by running away into the ‘world’ and living a relatively wild and rebellious life. But that also produced more problems than it solved.
Ira seemed doomed to repeat the pattern of running away, feeling the need to return, screwing up his determination and returning. Only to be overcome by oppression and and the need to run away again. Eventually, heartsick and depressed, Ira cried out to God. Not in the written, stilted prayers of his fathers, but in a desperate cry for help. God answered his prayer by bringing Sam into his life. Sam was not born Amish, but immersed himself into the community as an adult. Ira and Sam developed a deep friendship. Sam quietly showed Ira Christ’s love, and in doing so, lead him to the Source of love. Ira finally realised that Jesus had died for him. As he puts it: ‘He who gives life to the lifeless gave life to me’. From the moment he accepted Jesus as his saviour, he knew immediate, lasting peace and joy. He gradually came to realise that the Amish way of life was not for him, but this time he was completely open about leaving. No more sneaking away.
As I read this book, several words came to my mind about the Amish: romantic, oppressive, community-minded, austere, simple, hospitable, welcoming, gracious. At times I laughed over Ira’s funny insights and the crazy antics he and his friends got up to; at times I read of the heartbreak and tragedy through tears in my eyes. I even put a hand over my mouth in horror a couple of times. I appreciate Ira’s honesty in opening up this rather closed community through his story. And for showing that only with Christ is it possible to live life to the full.