Ira Wagler’s Serial Memoir Broken Roads: Returning to My Amish Father

By Sabrina Völz

I know the mon­sters that lurk in the recess­es of the mind and in

the dark cor­ners of the heart. I know, because I deal with my own demons

of what was and what might have been. I’ve heard those voic­es call­ing in the night.

I under­stand, because I poked my head through that door and looked around a bit.

And I got­ta say, it’s not a ter­ri­bly scary place. I wasn’t fright­ened there,

in that room where death is. I under­stand why peo­ple go there.

And I under­stand why peo­ple chose to stay there.

Ira Wagler, Bro­ken Roads, p. 187–188

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Grow­ing Up Amish, Ira Wagler’s New York Times best­seller has sold some 185,000 copies since it first appeared in 2011. A writer whose first book makes that list has much to live up to. Some writ­ers nev­er make it past the first book, while oth­ers end up wish­ing they had only writ­ten one. And if I am hon­est, I have to admit that I was some­what con­cerned about what I would do if I didn’t like Ira Wagler’s new book. After all, he’s been to my uni­ver­si­ty twice, and over the years, I’ve got to know and appre­ci­ate him. The book is not quite what I had expect­ed, and it is tru­ly dif­fer­ent in a few key ways from his first publication.

First, Bro­ken Roads appeared in May 2020, nine years after the pub­li­ca­tion of Grow­ing Up Amish. With that tem­po­ral dis­tance, I would have guessed that Ira might revis­it some of the episodes he wrote about in Grow­ing Up Amish. After all, that is what many ser­i­al mem­oirists do, and the sub­ti­tle of the book, Return­ing to my Amish Father, would seem to point in that direc­tion. With the theme of father-son rela­tion­ships so preva­lent in his first book and the crit­i­cism from with­in the com­mu­ni­ty Ira has received over the years for ‘dis­re­spect­ing’ his father, I would have also guessed that he might reflect on what he told in his first book and what per­haps he left out of that sto­ry. Ira was still very much work­ing through his past when he wrote Grow­ing Up Amish. For the most part, Bro­ken Roads, how­ev­er, lets sleep­ing dogs lie.

Sec­ond, ser­i­al mem­oirs often give a con­densed plot sum­ma­ry of the book that pre­ced­ed it so that new read­ers can fol­low the lat­est pub­li­ca­tion with­out too much dif­fi­cul­ty. Read­ers who have not read Grow­ing Up Amish may have a hard time fol­low­ing Bro­ken Roads as it is a con­tin­u­a­tion of his first work and assumes read­ers recall that sto­ry. If you haven’t, the talk he gave at Leuphana for the Plain Peo­ple Con­fer­ence held in 2015 will cer­tain­ly help.

Third, Bro­ken Roads is a dif­fer­ent read from Grow­ing Up Amish, a mem­oir told in chrono­log­i­cal order. It is a most­ly flu­id nar­ra­tive told from Ira’s birth – from the mem­o­ries of those who expe­ri­enced it – to his fifth and suc­cess­ful attempt to leave his Old Order Amish com­mu­ni­ty. It is a trau­ma-dri­ven work with clear pur­pose. In con­trast, Bro­ken Roads is more opti­mistic, most­ly dis­tanced from the pain and hurt of yes­ter­year. Instead of a straight, deter­mined path, the roads twist and turn. And while Ira does ulti­mate­ly nar­rate his rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with his father, the book is about so much more: his thirst for knowl­edge and edu­ca­tion, his bro­ken mar­riage, and his strug­gle with addic­tion (from which the above quote is tak­en). The episod­ic work of Bro­ken Roads is told in a less pol­ished, more col­lo­qui­al voice. In fact, I had to put the book down for a few days after mak­ing it through the first few chap­ters. It was just not what I’d expect­ed. Ira sur­prised me, and I wasn’t sure if sur­prise was good. And yet, after giv­ing it some thought, I picked it back up and fin­ished the rest in one sit­ting. To use one of Ira’s metaphors, through read­ing his sec­ond book, I’ve learned not to put Ira in a box. Read­ers should not either.

Fourth, Grow­ing Up Amish is a com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tive that explains the beau­ty of the close-knit Amish soci­ety from the per­spec­tive of some­one who left every­thing, includ­ing fam­i­ly and friends, behind. At the same time, the mem­oir helps the “Eng­lish” or non-Amish read­ers to have unfet­tered access to life in a closed com­mu­ni­ty, warts and all. For read­ers look­ing pri­mar­i­ly to learn more about Amish life as well as their cul­ture and tra­di­tions, Bro­ken Roads, how­ev­er, will like­ly dis­ap­point them. It tells about Amish life through death, through the last days, hours, and min­utes in the life of Ira’s moth­er and father, through the sup­port of the Amish com­mu­ni­ty, through the detailed funer­als of beloved fam­i­ly mem­bers. Beyond that – and these are cer­tain­ly painful sto­ries to both share and read – the focus of the book is not real­ly on the Amish per se. Instead, it is on Ira Wagler: the stu­dent, the hus­band, the lawyer, the writer, the divorcee, the addict, and the son. Bro­ken Roads focus­es on Ira’s jour­ney to tru­ly come to terms with his past and to mend his bro­ken rela­tion­ships, espe­cial­ly with his father.

When teach­ing life writ­ing to my stu­dents who have learned Eng­lish as a for­eign lan­guage, I use Grow­ing Up Amish as an induc­tive text­book to non-fic­tion sto­ry­telling. First, we read the mem­oir employ­ing the notic­ing approach, dis­cuss its con­tent, ana­lyze its style, and then my stu­dents learn the the­o­ry behind cre­ative non-fic­tion. In essence, I’ve cho­sen Grow­ing Up Amish because it’s a work of art and a com­pelling sto­ry in one. Stu­dents of mine often relate to the theme of not exact­ly belong­ing, of not liv­ing up to parental and soci­etal expec­ta­tions, of work­ing through trau­ma. Above all, Ira’s cre­ative style of writ­ing is sim­ple, and he does not embell­ish the truth. The many stu­dents who have gone through my project-ori­ent­ed sem­i­nar have repeat­ed­ly asked ques­tions, such as “What hap­pened to Ira after he left?”, “Was he real­ly able to come to terms with his past?”, and “Have he and his father rec­on­ciled?” It is for those inquis­i­tive read­ers that Bro­ken Roads is written.

In ret­ro­spect, I’ve come to real­ize that Ira’s voice in Bro­ken Roads is tru­ly his and there­fore per­haps even more authen­tic than the edit­ed Ira in Grow­ing Up Amish. Bro­ken Roads pro­vides hope for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for those who have left the com­mu­ni­ty and insight for those who won­der why it is so darn hard to ‘get on with life’ after leav­ing. The road may be long, bro­ken, and full of twists and turns, but for Ira, it is a road that ulti­mate­ly brings those fur­thest apart togeth­er. And while I might have pre­ferred more show­ing in places, the sto­ry is his, his alone, and only he can tell it. To quote Ira once more, “It is what it is,” noth­ing more and noth­ing less.

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