The Shirley Showalter interview: So much beneath this bonnet!

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“Put a bonnet on it—and it will sell.” That marketing trend has sold thousands of Amish romance novels and even Amish murder mysteries. This formula has turned heads of even the most worldly publishers toward the riches of the Anabaptist tradition. Radio and TV hosts should be flocking to invite Shirley Showalter onto their talk shows.

But, it’s easy to misunderstand Shirley Showalter’s remarkable new memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. At best, the cover may suggest a nostalgic souvenir from what millions of tourists call “Amish country.” At worst, you might mistake this as just another “bonnet book.”

BENEATH THIS BONNET

Let’s get a few things straight—so you’ll see the unique gifts of this book and Shirley Showalter’s voice.

SHIRLEY IS THE REAL DEAL: Raised Mennonite, she had an Andy-Griffith-meets-It’s-a-Wonderful-Life childhood full of colorful stories, savvy lessons in living a meaningful life—and good cooking. This is not back-handed praise. This is a sign of the memoir’s unique appeal: When is the last time you read a page-turner of a childhood memoir in which the main character doesn’t suffer the tortures of the damned? As Editor of Read The Spirit magazine, that’s one of the fascinating issues I raise with Shirley in our interview today.

GOOD EATING: Did you catch the “cooking” reference? This book serves up recipes. No, you’re not likely to follow Shirley’s “Food for a Barn Raising” instructions—but you are likely to try her Steamed Cherry Pudding, Shoo Fly Pie, Beet Pickles—and the famous family cookie recipe that is the subject of our Feed The Spirit column for this week.

A DOORWAY INTO A COURAGEOUS WORLD: Every American knows something about the Amish—and Read The Spirit has reported extensively on the Amish, too. However, few Americans know much about the Mennonites, a major branch of the centuries-old Anabaptist movement that today is known for its courage and generosity in peacemaking and community building. Blush is a welcoming doorway into that world—a world that Shirley herself still proudly represents.

So, here are some additional recommendations:

AND NOW …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH SHIRLEY SHOWALTER
ON ‘BLUSH,’ A MENNONITE MEMOIR

Shirley Showalter, author of the memoir Blush.

Shirley Showalter, author of the memoir Blush.

DAVID CRUMM: Today, you don’t wear a bonnet. There still are many visibly traditional Mennonites in the U.S., but you are part of the Mennonite Church USA, a denomination of about 1,000 congregations in which members don’t tend to follow traditional dress codes, right?

SHIRLEY SHOWALTER: Our church does contain some members who still are conservatively dressed, but many of those members are older. We no longer have to follow the rules and regulations under which I grew up. Our members no longer have to be “plain” on the outside.

No one can tell just by looking at me today that I am Mennonite. So, what defines us? This question has challenged me to grasp for and hold onto the deepest values in the theological commitments of the Mennonite church. I really would love to be “plain” on the inside now. I love the phrase, “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s from Richard Rohr.

DAVID: And from Thomas Merton before Richard; Jean Vanier of L’Arche loved that line, too, and, even before that, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” There’s a lot of shared wisdom there.

SHIRLEY: That kind of simplicity is what I seek myself—and what I hope my church is helping its members and the rest of the world to seek.

‘CAN A MEMOIR BE ABOUT A HAPPY CHILDHOOD?’

DAVID: We will talk more about the Mennonite movement in a moment, but I have to tell readers: This book’s narrative is very compelling. I’m not alone in saying that—Bill Moyers praises your book, too. At the same time, this is a strikingly simple and happy story. I mean, the worst thing I can recall your doing in the course of this book is locking your little brother inside the chicken house on your family farm until he cried.

SHIRLEY: One of the questions I had in writing my story was: Is it possible to write a good memoir that’s primarily about a happy life? (laughs) Well, now that I’ve written this book, I hope the answer to that question is yes!

It is a serious question: Think about Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes—such an incredibly hard childhood! For a while, writers seemed to be competing with these misery memoirs—each one writing about a life more miserable than the last one. Or there’s The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls—that’s an amazing memoir about a very strange family. Misery and strangeness seemed to be selling. I think that’s one reason James Frey felt so much pressure to put really tough details into his book.

DAVID: Yes, and it landed him in hot water when his A Million Little Pieces proved to contain as much fiction as fact. So, back to the original question: No one is murdered in your memoir; you aren’t abused; there’s no one addicted to crack cocaine; so, can a book-length memoir work, if the life is essentially happy?

SHIRLEY: For me, Haven Kimmel answers this question: In her books, she has shown that, yes, we can write about an essentially happy life in a way that readers will enjoy. All lives have conflict in them—conflict that makes for a good story—even though the person’s life may not be full of dramatically dysfunctional experiences.

DAVID: Well, I loved your book and my answer to the question we’re discussing is Frederich Buechner’s answer. He has written this—and said it—in various ways throughout his career. Here’s one passage where he writes: “My story and your story are all part of each other, if only because we have sung together and prayed together and seen each other’s faces so that we are at least a footnote at the bottom of each other’s stories. In other words all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”

SHIRLEY: Thank you for sharing that. You know the most risky words I wrote in this book? The opening words: “Ever since I was little, I wanted to be big. Not just big as in tall, but big as in important, successful, influential. I wanted to be seen and listened to. I wanted to make a splash in the world. Admitting this desire still feels like a huge risk. It contradicts much of what my church and my home taught me about the importance of humility.”

You cannot know how frightening it was for me to write those words—and to put them there on the first page of the book. The answer to this whole question—and to the risk I am taking in those opening words by putting myself out there in this way—they’re answered in Buechner’s words. We want to share these stories because, in the end, all our stories are one story.

HOW ‘HOPE OPENS UP FOR US’ IN RECALLING CHILDHOOD

Gene Stratton Porter Christmas Carol Kauffman Laura Lee HopeDAVID: Flipping through your book—let’s say in the Amazon “Look Inside” feature—will show readers some of  your black-and-white photos of farm life and, of course, photos of you among school children. They’re charming photos. The accompanying stories take us into 4-H projects, farm life, the kitchen, school—and so on.

What impressed me, in reading your book, is that it brings to life the process described by the philosopher and scholar of world religions, Jacob Needleman. In our earlier interview with Jacob, he urged people to try to recall the inspiration of childhood. Rediscovering the boundless curiosity of childhood, Jacob says at one point: “That’s where we can join with great scientists, with searching philosophers, with religious seekers and with so many young people today. When we reach toward that point of sharing this larger need, then hope opens up for us.”

I think readers will have fun with the passages in your memoir where you describe the books you discovered as a child. I smiled when I read about Bunny Brown, one of the series for young readers produced by the Bobbsey Twins folks. And you read the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Tell us about Christmas Carol Kauffman, who is still available from resellers on Amazon.

SHIRLEY: I read all her books. She was a Mennonite fiction writer. Of course, she wrote stories for the purpose of moral uplift, but I liked her stories because they were about worlds I recognized. I did begin to notice, as I read more of her books, that they had very similar plots. She was very important to me, because she was a Mennonite writer.

Tom Sawyer also was an important book in my life. And, Robinson Crusoe, too! I made my brother play my man Friday.

Then, I should mention Gene Stratton-Porter! When I read her book, A Girl of the Limberlost—which was also one of my mother’s favorite books—I became an instant naturalist. I started to go out into the fields and tried to gather butterflies. I now recognize and appreciate the independent woman who was behind that book more than I realized at the time. But, even from my first reading of it, that book was very important to me. I was able to get into Gene Stratton-Porter’s characters in a way I never was able to get into Christmas Carol Kauffman’s characters.

WHY ARE YOU A MENNONITE? ‘COMMUNITY’

DAVID: We’re moving full circle here. It’s time to return to the question of what makes Mennonites distinctive. Christmas Carol Kauffman was born on Christmas Day in 1901, which was the source of her unusual name. In addition to writing semi-autobiographical stories like Lucy Winchester, she and her husband were remarkably successful Mennonite missionaries in Missouri. Among other things, they did prison ministry.

As a journalist for many years, I’ve been dispatched to cover major disaster stories in various parts of the U.S. and, often, I would run across crews from Mennonite Disaster Service. So, you’re educators; you’re peacemakers; you’re community builders; you’ve got very well-organized relief crews.

What makes you remain a Mennonite?

SHIRLEY: The first word I would choose is: community. There is a commitment to support each other in congregational life that is very strong. In fact, my own congregation is called Community Mennonite Church. It’s a place where people weep with you when you’re weeping and rejoice with you when you’re ready to rejoice.

As a person—I need help to be who I say I am. So, it helps me to be surrounded in my church by people who have made these same kinds of commitments. We want to avoid the worst of American consumerism, the worst of American individualism and the worst of American militarism. Together, we try to speak and live the opposite of those things.

DAVID: Your book is coming out when America’s wealth gap is so bad that we haven’t seen such inequality since the Gilded Age. Your Mennonite community stands in direct contrast to that winner-take-all approach to American culture, right?

SHIRLEY: It sickens me to see the gap widen so far in my lifetime. Another reason that the word “community” is in our church title is that we are rooted in our community—literally. We believe that the church is where the poor and those who are disenfranchised can be heard and their needs can be met.

You mentioned Mennonite Disaster Service, which recently was highlighted for its work in the Sandy relief efforts. They’re known not only for coming early, but also for staying late. They stay until they feel they have helped to restore a core strength in a community that has been affected by a disaster. I did some work in the 9th Ward of New Orleans with Mennonite Disaster Service and I can tell you—it’s wonderful. When you are part of one of their projects, you begin with devotions in the morning. While I was in New Orleans, I worked on tiling a floor during the day. Then, there are lots of other opportunities for fellowship throughout the whole experience.

DAVID: Say a word about the peace tradition. Mennonites represent part of the great “peace church” tradition.

SHIRLEY: That’s right. That commitment to pacifism has been there since the beginning of Anabaptist history. It’s a very important part of what unites Mennonites and Amish and Quakers and a broad spectrum of people in terms of their practices in other areas of life. These are the historic peace churches and, to this day, they support each other and maintain solidarity in the face of what sometimes has been great resistance to this message throughout history. Mennonites continue to stand in harm’s way as peacemakers in conflict zones. They help people who have gone through trauma; they help people avoid conflicts; they help to heal brokenness wherever it is found.

We take Jesus at his word that we should love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We don’t participate in war—but we’re not content just to say: We won’t fight. Rather, we want to offer as much help to the world as we can in creating alternatives to conflict.

DAVID: At the very end of your book, you have added a few pages on these themes. Mostly, in this book, readers will be enjoying your years growing up as a Mennonite girl. Overall, if you could talk to readers finishing your book: What do you hope they will be thinking as they close your book?

SHIRLEY: Let me answer that question by quoting something I prepared for a video introduction to the book. I would leave readers with this thought:

The book’s title—Blush—refers to my discomfort in that place between the church and the world. It also means that I tried so hard to be sophisticated. It took me a long time to discover that God made me a feisty, curious, plain Mennonite farm girl for a reason. When I am vulnerable and wholehearted, I am much more aware of God and my community can come in and support me, even in times of conflict and pain and doubt.

I’m no longer plain on the outside, but I would love to be plain on the inside. Being plain is not simple. True simplicity requires us to drop our pretenses, let go of our ego and learn to embrace the blush, rather than to fight it. This wisdom is ancient. It’s as true for you as it is for me.

And, the place where it leads is—home.

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