The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
06 June 2007
Ruminations on rumspringa, or “Duh!”
One of the speculative fiction writer’s hardest tasks is to free herself of cultural blinders that lead her to view the future, the past, and potential alien cultures through the lens of modern American values.
No one wants to be like the Hanna-Barbera team that produced The Jetsons. The women’s movement was brewing, the civil rights movement was stewing, yet in the imagined future lived by the Jetson family, subservient women stayed home (even though machines handled the housework), and only white people played a role in society. It was not a look forward at all, but rather a nostalgic projection of 1950s values and behaviors that were already becoming obsolete.
Writers still fight with this problem—and lose. Novels set in the Middle Ages sometimes are bewilderingly free of the everyday rituals and reminders of religion that dominated those times. Novels set in the far future or in alien galaxies too often graft, Frankenstein-like, contemporary American mores and social patterns onto societies whose history could not have produced them.
I try to keep my anthropological training in mind when writing speculative fiction. Other human societies, past and present, offer a cornucopia of philosophies, religious practices, taboos, diet beliefs, codes of honor, styles of dress, divisions of labor, and sex roles for the writer to feast on when birthing a world.
I realized recently, though, that contemporary America is not completely sterile as an inspiration for worldbuilding. My eye-opener was Rumspringa: To Be Or Not To Be Amish by nonfiction writer Tom Shachtman. The book focuses on the custom of rumspringa (“running around”) practiced by the Old Order Amish, the strictest of the anabaptist sects in the United States.
After Old Order Amish teens leave school at 14, they are allowed some years of freedom in the world before they must decide whether to be baptized and join the Amish church and live under all its rules. The Old Order Amish believe a person cannot make this decision without knowing what they are giving up. Rumspringa is a time of exploration during which teens may take jobs in the outside world, smoke, drink, drive, dress “English,” wear make-up, own cars and CD players and cell phones, and spend time with people of the opposite sex without adult chaperones.
As you might guess, when these innocents are set free from the tight restrictions of Amish life into the alien world of American teenagerhood, many tumble headfirst into a wild life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The book chronicles the adventures and confusion of several teens as they struggle to choose the course of the rest of their lives, sometimes while burdened by alcoholism or drug addictions or love for someone non-Amish.
Over the course of the book, one learns quite a bit about the Amish perspective on life—what is moral, what a desirable life is, how decisions should be made, how society should be ordered, the value of living apart from the wider world—as well as what can befall a stranger in a strange land. What struck me hard was that a society that had strict rules covering every aspect of life down to the number of straight pins one could use to keep one's blouse closed allowed teens a brief respite from all of these rules. It's an idea I've never seen explored in fiction, even though many fantasy books are coming-of-age stories.
I found Rumspringa a fascinating book that gave me an inside look at a way of life in some ways opposite the one I live in New Orleans. Clearly, I don’t need to look far away in distance or time to find intriguing ideas for stories; America has plenty of groups with distinct and interesting subcultures—something an anthropologist should have known. Duh!