Writing what might have been: The Amish, a murder and faithfulness
By Jodi H. Beyeler
When Evie Yoder Miller’s aunt told her about the murder of an Amish baby that led to a false accusation and the 50-year shunning of the baby’s uncle until the truth was revealed, Yoder Miller ’66 knew that she wanted to know more.
After 15 years of extensive research and writing, Yoder Miller has imagined how the blanks might be filled in this Amish murder mystery in her first published book, Eyes at the Window, released by Good Books in October 2003. She previously published short stories, essays and poems in a variety of small presses.
Eyes at the Window, a historical novel, tells the story through the voices of eight Amish characters – the accuser, the accused, the perpetrator, supposed witness and church and family members – as they grow older and move from Somerset County, Pa., to Holmes County, Ohio, in the first half of the 19th century. While the murder mystery underscores the story, the novel also explores the tensions between Amish who migrated further west and those who stayed in Pennsylvania; the struggle for daily survival and losses; and the traditional cycles of marriages, children, farming and church life among the Amish.
As Yoder Miller began Eyes at the Window, she didn’t particularly set out to write an Amish novel. “I set out to write a story – the best story I could,” she said. In doing so, she breaks the mold of novels about the Amish that may tend to romanticize the religious group as perfect, quaint and ideal, and instead portrays individuals who happen to be Amish in the glory and heartache of their humanness.
“One goal was not to make saints or monsters out of them,” she said. “They have been misrepresented before. I want to help people understand who they are as human beings, that their desires and needs are a lot like any other human being.”
After she initially heard the story by her aunt, Yoder Miller made trips to Somerset and Holmes counties “to get a feel for the geography” – including visiting the graves of those involved. “I also did a lot of research on the Amish, even though I grew up among them [as] they were part of my childhood,” she said.
Yoder Miller grew up in Kalona, Iowa, the largest Amish/Mennonite settlement west of the Mississippi River. Her father was raised Amish until his family joined the Mennonite Church. “It is a sacred trust to write about characters with whom I share a cultural heritage,” she said.
Since she was a child who loved to read, Yoder Miller wanted to be a high school English teacher but she didn’t aspire to be a writer until much later. “I stayed with what was shown to me; I didn’t push the boundaries,” she said.
After earning a degree in English from Goshen College in 1966, she did teach at Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona for four years, then lived a “traditional housewife life” in Appalachia while raising her two daughters.
But life changed for her when, after separating from her husband, Yoder Miller entered graduate school in 1992 at Ohio University to study creative writing-fiction, which she said changed her life “drastically, it was very exciting for me.”
She immersed herself in literature and explored new ideas as she interacted with younger students in an educational setting again. Like heading to Goshen College had been when she was a teenager, “going back to graduate school was another leap for me,” Yoder Miller said.
At Goshen, Yoder Miller said Atlee Beechy, professor emeritus of psychology, and Mary E. Bender, professor emerita of French, were influential in her growth. “Atlee was a wonderful, wise man. He pushed us to think about our world beyond the text,” she said. In Bender’s class, “I saw how fiction could encourage readers to think about an idea and investigate our world,” she added.
But unlike at Goshen in the mid-1960s, when she read literature primarily by male authors, she was introduced in graduate school to a world of female writers who were “asking questions through fiction” and showing her a model for her own writing.
When Yoder Miller started graduate school, she had a complete first draft of Eyes at the Window in hand, but set it down for several years until she could apply what she would learn in her writing classes.
When she began revising the early manuscript, Yoder Miller, who has taught writing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater since 2000, posted three words in front of her: emotion, urgency and suggest. She wanted to remember and develop these characteristics on each page. “Something that mattered had to happen in each chapter, I had to bring the characters to life through their passions and I learned that it is effective not to say everything,” she said. “Now the language in the book is much more interesting and the characters are developed.”
At the heart of the story in Eyes at the Window is not a murder, but the struggle of individuals and a community to be faithful. For Yoder Miller, “Matters of faith and how we live – that’s part of who I am, what I think about and what matters to me,” she said. “Often religion has given ready answers, but I think serious fiction shouldn’t try to eliminate the pain and suffering of life, but rather show us moments where we do redeem ourselves, bring healing to each other and stand with each other. Those aren’t really answers, but they are visible evidence of what humans can be.”
By using the literary device of alternating eight narrators through the chapters of the book, Yoder Miller allows the complexity of perception to unfold for the reader – and suggest that there is always another way to look at a situation. “What interests me is to lift up moral ambiguities in the religious community,” she said. “I believe we should live with the ambiguity in the midst of our faith and belief.”
Yoder Miller has come to see writing as a service to others, “In my Mennonite background, art was not viewed that highly, except music. Written words didn’t carry that same esteem,” she said. “I certainly see shaping words as serving the needs of humans for beauty and truth without being direct about it. Writing is a service when it finds a form that can carry the idea.”
In her new book, “writing serves the original incident,” Yoder Miller said. “It is an honest telling of what might have been.”
So far, Eyes at the Window has been received with praise. Booklist gave it a starred review, saying, “Miller is particularly skilled at conjuring up the internal lives of people who might seem stoical but, upon deeper examination, prove as passionate as anyone.” Borders bookstore has selected the novel for its Original Voices program which highlights best new books. And it is selling better than any other fiction book published by Good Books in their 25 years. For Yoder Miller, a sign of success comes when she hears, “people saying that they are very caught up in the book and looking forward to reading it each night.”