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Book Report: Romance genre blooms with 'Rumspringa'

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I hail from Whitehall where there's a large settlement of Amish who moved in forty-odd years ago.

My father first worried about their presence because he was a businessman on Main Street and he said, "All they'll buy is salt and black thread."

He was wrong, of course, but I always think of him when I see young Amish brides at the IGA buying TV dinners and their husbands letting go their agricultural traces to become painters, carpenters and roofers (good ones, too).

Years ago my widowed father lost a leg and we hired Rachel, "a fallen away" Amish girl to be his housekeeper.

She had fallen away, but was still very prim and proper and used to hard work.

By this time, my father was fascinated by the Amish way of doing things because it reminded him of his farm childhood.

One evening he insisted that he and Rachel watch on TV a rerun of "The Witness," the movie about a Philadelphia detective (Harrison Ford) holing up on an Amish farm in Lancaster County.

When it was all over, he asked Rachel if it was an accurate presentation of the Amish way. She said that the barn raising was very good and generally she liked it, but, she said, "I doubt if the young widow would have danced naked in the granary with Harrison Ford."

I wish my father would still be alive to enjoy the new trend in book publishing -- Amish romance novels, as exemplified by "A Simple Spring," by Rosalind Lauer ($15, paper), part of Ballantine's "Seasons of Lancaster" series.

I'm certain he'd prefer it over the romantic drivel often found in the swashbuckling romances of decades past.

Sadie King is an Amish farm girl who is partaking of her "Rumspringa," the platdeutsch term for the time Amish young people get to leave home and experiment with the "Englischer" ways of the outside world.

As in most Amish romances, Sadie takes up first with a jazz musician and plays gigs in the big city.

All of these modest shenanigans do not please her older brother Adam, who is now the leader of his family after the killing of their parents.

(You've got to hand it to the genre novel. It's got something for everyone in it.)

So Sadie bounces around in the outside world, where she finds out that all is not perfect in that sphere. It's not surprising that such novels are popular.

All of them offer a look into two worlds, the Amish with its struggle to stay simple and succeed in a larger world. (The King family is getting its first milking machine.) And the Englischer way, freewheeling and dangerous and often out of control.

Moreover, one learns a bit about Amish ways and language. "The Lord God" becomes "The Lord Gott." "Dad" becomes "Datt." Even when they're treated to Rumspringa, they're expected to follow the "Ordnung" which dictates the order of their days.

If you enjoy Lauer's "A Simple Spring," go back and read a prequel published last year, "A Simple Winter" and "A "Simple Autumn" due out next fall.

When I was a kid I avoided most of the books aimed at adolescents. They had titles like "Tommy's Last Touchdown" and "Nurse Jane Comes Through."

With the exception of the Caddie Woodlawn and Little House series, they taught you nothing and they were sickeningly goody-goody.

So most of my pals and I read adult novels that even had sex and swear words in them, like Erskine Caldwell's "God's Little Acre" and "The Amboy Dukes," by Irving Shulman, not a great way for a teen to get a wholesome even-handed sex education.

Fortunately the adolescent publishing game has changed a good deal since the bad old days. Nowhere is that more apparent than Carolrhoda Lab's series of novels that explores the underside of teen life in the 21st century.

I just finished a gripping tale about a Salvadoran street gang member in Houston, Texas, "The Knife and the Butterfly," by Ashley Hope Perez (Lab, $17.95).

Perez taught in Houston and was inspired to write the book basing her character on one of her students. After a rumble with a rival gang, Azael Arevalo awakens in a strange prison and tries to figure out what has happened to him.

Every day, he's put in an observation room to observe another inmate, a white girl named Alexis Allen. In the course of the observation, he recalls his homeless life on the streets, his sexual and pugilistic experiences.

It's all told in very explicit language that might offend some readers, but if I were a kid, I'd plough right in and learn about how the other, less-fortunate-half lives.

Dave Wood is a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in River Falls, Wis., and can be reached at 715-426-9554.