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
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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