Winter 2007 > Campus News

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Professor’s sonnets reflect on Amish school tragedy

ann hostetler portrait Professor of English and poet Ann Hostetler took the shock and horror of the Oct. 2 Amish school shootings and transformed it into an evocative, deeply affecting work of reflection – a cycle of four “Sonnets for the Amish Girls of Nickel Mines.”

Hostetler, whose father, the late sociologist John A. Hostetler, was raised Amish, said news of the shootings came as a great shock to her last year. Her mind quickly returned to a visit she made to an Amish school the year before with fellow poet B.H. Fairchild, who had been moved by the school’s “sacred” environment. “The poems come out of a deep inner place,” Hostetler said. “A good poem can provide a space where you can put your complicated thoughts and not feel like you have to come up with a platitude.”

By using the form of a sonnet, with its precise rhyme scheme and meter, Hostetler said she hoped to bring her own kind of order to the subject. “Maybe there’s a kind of formality to processing it this way,” she said. “Maybe the sonnet is a form that can deal with this.”

– By Robert Rhodes for Mennonite Weekly Review

CV Image Sonnets for the Amish Girls of Nickel Mines 


He tied their legs together, made them face
the blackboard, released their brothers, mothers,
teachers, then barred the doors with two-by-fours.
Ten pairs of toes lined up in place.
Ten pairs of arms could not erase
a moment set in motion by such error.
Ten starched white caps could not conceal their terror
as ten heads bowed in simple grace.
Where once they took their turns to stand apart
and write a sum or sentence they had learned,
(the unprepared might feel some mild concern),
they now could hear each others’ beating hearts
as his handgun called the roll—Mary,
Lena, Marian, Anna Mae, Naomi Rose.


Naomi Rose, Mary, Lena, Marian
and Anna Mae – dressed in white by family
and placed in wooden caskets on display
for last loving looks from friends and kin –
now ride in somber carriages again
past the home of him who took their life away
leaving a family puzzled and betrayed
of all they thought he could be as a man.
Their last journey protected by patrol
– even reporters must have a pass –
they move on to church and grave. We are left
without a verse or story to console
us on an autumn day whose shining grass
reflects the sun, a blue sky of clouds bereft.


A blue sky of clouds bereft, wide open
to receive the innocent. But those who live
must have their explanation; the other five
girls recover in intensive care – again
they’ll have to live the moments of their pain
even as their families struggle to forgive
the gunman, receive his widow, kids.
For us or them, life will never be the same.
We wait to gather crumbs of consolation
from what they can remember or will tell
of what’s unspeakable: the oldest girl
offering to be shot in lieu of others,
her slumped body found beneath chalked letters:
unexpected visitors bring sunshine.


Unexpected visitors bring sunshine:
the covered casserole still oven-warm,
gleaming jars of produce from the farm
home-preserved: peaches, cucumbers in brine,
blackberry jam, hard-boiled eggs stained with wine
of red-beet juice. This red will do no harm.
This giver’s knock brings blessing, not alarm,
an offering to those who’ve lost in kind.
The scattered toys, the silent house awash
in grief that stunned a family unable
to believe what had been done. The Amish
givers ease the unlocked door ajar and rest
the box of food on the empty kitchen table.
Forgiveness is the unexpected guest.

© 2006 by Ann Hostetler. All rights reserved.