Bestseller Castillo provides another intimate portrait of Amish characters in her ninth Kate Burkholder novel, Down a Dark Road (Minotaur, July).
When I conceived the core idea for the first book in my Kate Burkholder series, Sworn to Silence, I was intrigued by the idea of writing a crime novel set among the Amish. I wanted to explore this hidden world with my readers, but how best to do it? I began researching the Amish and realized: What better way to peel away the layers of this fascinating culture than to write a crime story in which a murder and the ensuing investigation force that mysterious world to reveal itself?
There are more than 300,000 Amish people living in North America, yet the vast majority of us know little about them. We have a vague notion of a religious community whose members live on quaint farms, wear old-fashioned clothes, and get around via horse and buggy. Perhaps it’s that element of the unknown that captivates us—and makes Amish fiction so popular.
The Amish are an insular community, whose first language isn’t English but Pennsylvania Dutch or Deitsch (which is actually a form of high—highland—German). There’s a tenet of “separation from the rest of the world” built into the Amish belief system, and some of the Old Order take that precept to heart. One of the elements that tantalized me as a crime writer was that closed-society aspect, and I wondered how difficult it would be for a cop to investigate a homicide when the people involved won’t speak openly to him or her.
I wanted to create a protagonist who could give us a glimpse of the inner workings of this secretive society. I came up with chief of police Kate Burkholder, who was born Amish but left the fold. As a result, some of the Amish have shunned her. She knows the culture, the faith, and the language. Even after nine books I’m still learning new things about her.
The fictional town of Painters Mill is located in bucolic Holmes County, Ohio. It’s the kind of place that might fool some into believing nothing bad could ever happen. Of course, in the world of crime fiction, it does. That juxtaposition of wholesome living versus evil appealed to me nearly as much as the notion of a cultural divide.
I’ve learned a lot about the Amish since that first book—about the history, the religion, the people, and the traditions. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some Amish people, and it’s become increasingly important to me to depict the culture correctly and without stereotype. The Amish may refer to themselves as the Plain People, but the culture is as rich as the land upon which they’ve lived for nearly 300 years.