Monday, July 2, 2012

Wordcraft -- Life and crime in Amish country

I admit taking plenty of surreptitious looks at the slim, stylishly dressed woman. Because mystery author Linda Castillo didn’t look like my idea of plain people. Her blonde hair was uncovered. She wore a sleeveless blouse in an ornamental print. Nothing like the women of the Ohio Amish communities she writes about in her bestselling Kate Burkholder crime series. She acknowledged that while she was growing up, riding a school bus with an Amish girl was the closest she got to the reclusive religious group which has lived in this country for centuries without really living among the rest of us. The ones they call “English,” no matter what national origin prefix we may give ourselves.

But even during the years Castillo spent writing romance novels, her interest in the Amish, with their closed society and centuries-long history of religious and cultural persecution, increased. Then came Nickel Mines, where the shootings of ten girls in a one-room schoolhouse in 2006 thrust the Amish into national prominence. And not just because of the tragedy, but because of the comfort the bereaved community extended to the family of the girls’ suicidal killer.

Awed by the Amish “capacity for forgiveness,” Castillo told her audience, “I wanted to depict them correctly. I didn’t want to fall back on stereotypes.”

Enter Kate Burkholder, a formerly Amish young woman turned small town police chief, “a protagonist who could immerse the reader in the Amish way.”

Castillo spoke Saturday at A Real Bookstore in Fairview about the Burkholder series. Its just-released fourth volume, Gone Missing, deals with the disappearances of a series of Amish teens.

So how do the Amish themselves view the intrusion into their culture of a writer who doesn’t hold back on the violence that afflicts even the most reclusive. She recounts felling intimidated when she learned the audience for a previous reading would include a man who was a member of the Amish community. To her relief, “he loved the books and asked me if I would like a tour of the Amish-Mennonite heritage museum.”

And then there was a woman who asked Castillo point-blank how she could write about “such things.”

Although Castillo researched crime in the Amish community for several years before writing the first book in her series, Breaking Silence, she also attended two citizen police academies to bring realism to her protagonist’s job in law enforcement. For ride-alongs, “I always chose the graveyard shift because that’s when all the crazies come out,” and experienced the smell of a morgue, which even modern HVAC systems can’t get rid of it.

In answer to questions from the audience of readers, yes, she’s four hundred pages into the fifth book in the series, which she expects to be released in June of next year, with plans for a sixth. In the meantime, filming has been completed for a movie based on the original book, starring actress Neve Campbell, and expected to be released on one of A&E’s networks. In the meantime, check her website, for updates on life and crime among the plain people.

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