“I promise: you will be transported,” says Bill Moyers of this memoir. Part Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, part Growing Up Amish, and part Little House on the Prairie, this book evokes a lost time, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when a sheltered little girl with big dreams entered a family and church caught up in the midst of the cultural changes of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. With gentle humor and clear-eyed affection the author, who grew up to become a college president, tells the story of her first encounters with the “glittering world” and her desire for “fancy” forbidden things she could see but not touch.
The reader enters a plain Mennonite Church building, walks through the meadow, makes sweet and sour feasts in the kitchen and watches the little girl grow up. Along the way, five other children enter the family, one baby sister dies, the family moves to the “home place.” The major decisions, whether to join the church, and whether to leave home and become the first person in her family to attend college, will have the reader rooting for the girl to break a new path. In the tradition of Jill Ker Conway’s The Road to Coorain, this book details the formation of a future leader who does not yet know she’s being prepared to stand up to power and to find her own voice.
The book contains many illustrations and resources, including recipes, a map, and an epilogue about why the author is still Mennonite. Topics covered include the death of a child, Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, the role of bishops in the Mennonite church, the paradoxes of plain life (including fancy cars and the practice of growing tobacco). The drama of passing on the family farm and Mennonite romance and courtship, as the author prepares to leave home for college, create the final challenges of the book.
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Shirley Hershey Showalter gives the reader a view into the life of a Mennonite farm girl in the 1960s, an intimate look. I have visited Pennsylvania, specifically the Lancaster County area, and I have seen Mennonite and Amish farms, those farm families on the streets of various small towns, and the shopkeepers from whom I purchased items to bring home. But seeing is not the same as living as an Amish or Mennonite and then sharing it on the written page. Thank you, Shirley, for giving me a marvelous trip into Mennonite farm life.
The author and I are about the same age so I related on a very personal level with her growing up years and the things happening in the world at that time. What I found most amazing is that, although I grew up a Methodist and the author a Mennonite, our lives were startlingly similar, almost mirror images. The Methodist Church had at that time, based on family values, some rigid ground rules, as the author experienced in the Mennonite church, family and community.
On another level, the author and I had similar dreams — writing, college, moving on, experiencing the world. We both fought similar battles to carry out our dreams. Today, except for a difference in where our professional lives took us, we connect in a parallel world called the Internet in memoir and writing communities.
For me, this book took me on a journey of reminiscences of my life, including dreams, frustrations, disappointments and more. Another reviewer, who grew up on a farm, felt similarly in that she could relate so closely with the author’s life as a farmer’s daughter.
I share these words with you not to detract from the review of the book but to show you just how effectively Showalter has written her stories down. They are real, and you can feel the rhythm of each day as she follows her father around the family farm. And Blush is built on a theme of universality, and Showalter accomplishes this beautifully.
Showalter’s desires to move into the more “glittering world” as a college student and writer were also the dreams of her mother as a girl. The reader senses the author’s mother encouraging her with unspoken words. Once again, palpable stories full of description and the members of the author’s family.
A message of faith runs through Showalter’s stories as an undercurrent to the stream of her life with its dreams and yes, its rules. And in the epilogue, it is clear why she chose to stay with the Mennonite Church in the end.
For a memoir that will keep you reading and perhaps, like me and other reviewers, thinking back over your own life’s experiences, Blush is that memoir. Showalter’s writing style is fluid, colorful, and honest. Her stories speak to us of life as it really happened, life on the farm but with an insistent pull to the “glittering world.”
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Meet Shirley Hershey Showalter:
Shirley Hershey Showalter (1948 – ) grew up on a Mennonite family farm near Lititz, Pennsylvania. The first person in her family to go to college, she eventually became the first woman president of Goshen College in Indiana, a national liberal arts college noted for its commitment to peace and international service learning. She joined the Fetzer Institute in 2004, a private operating foundation with this mission: “to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community.” In 2010 she became a full-time writer living in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She has won awards for excellence in each of the fields she entered: teaching, higher education, leadership, and writing. Her memoir “Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World” (September 19, 2013) tells the story of a little girl who dreamed big and was transformed by dreams much bigger than her own.
“I promise: you will be transported,” says Bill Moyers of this memoir. Part Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, part Growing Up Amish, and part Little House on the Prairie, this book evokes a lost time, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when a sheltered but feisty little girl entered a family and church caught up in the midst of the cultural changes of the 1950’s and ’60’s. With gentle humor and clear-eyed affection, the author tells the story of her first encounters with the “glittering world” and her desire for “fancy” forbidden things she could see but not touch.
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UP NEXT: Tomorrow is Friday so it’s time for Friday Favorites, and I’ll be talking about my first library visit and card.