The BIG THRILL caught up with Karen Harper to discuss her new novel, UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT, the last in her Home Valley Amish suspense series. It’s her 8th novel set among the Ohio Amish. It’s also a holiday story but one that doesn’t let up on the exploration of rural crimes among the “peaceful people in the land.”
Tell us a bit about UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT.
Lydia Brand, a young Amish woman, has always felt a bit different from her people because she was adopted. She is also an only child because her brother drowned years ago in the pond behind the house, something that haunts her family. As Christmas approaches, Lydia decides to probe who her real parents were—something her adopted family and even the bishop have been very secretive about. Her parents put pressure on her to accept the suitor of their choice, but she’s long been in love with Josh Yoder, the Amish man next door who has lived in the world for a time. Josh breeds exotic animals, including camels he rents out for Christmas pageants. With Josh’s help, Lydia begins to probe her past and turns up danger—and two dead bodies. Fearing she’s next, she refuses to turn back.
Although your Amish books include romance, they are not the Christian inspirational novels that are popular now. How would you describe your Amish-set novels?
My books are somewhere between thrillers—there is always a suspenseful plot and villain—and traditional murder mysteries. They are labeled ‘romantic suspense,’ but are more suspense than romance. The heroine, usually with the main male lead, solves a crime that has deeply impacted her life. Often she saves the hero instead of him saving her. Of course, the books are also a look into the amazing and very different world of the Amish.
Why do these peace-loving, rural people work well for thriller-suspense?
For one thing, despite family and friends, they live isolated lives. Of course, it’s easier to have a rural heroine be stranded in a situation without help—a tall corn field, a dark barn. Although the Amish may use phones at work, they cannot have them in their homes. No electricity, so there’s nothing like a really dark night or farmhouse for a frightening scene. Also, the Amish don’t in general trust the police, lawyers or others the English (non-Amish) might immediately turn to for help. And in the romance, if an Amish man or woman falls in love outside of the Plain People group, they can be shunned, which leads to even more isolation. The Amish have a saying, “It’s not all cakes and pies.” In other words, bad things do happen in Amish country—even as the lovely snow falls and Christmas approaches.
How do the Amish celebrate Christmas?
As you can imagine, they do not go along with all the commercialism. As a matter of fact, there is a movement among the Amish to return to marking the day, not on December 25th, as they do now, but on the old world day of Epiphany in January. The Amish do gather for a special meal and exchange simple, useful gifts—a sled, a pair of skates, something for a hope chest. They do have some carols. Although they speak a German dialect (as well as English, of course) they do not follow the German-traditional custom of having a Christmas tree. They may use simple decorations of fruit, candles, a tree bough. The artist did a good job conveying that simplicity on the cover of the book.
Your heroine in this novel does not have a family that farms, which is more or less the stereotype for Amish families. And how unusual is it for an Amish family, like Lydia’s, to be wealthy?
A couple of things on that topic–Many of the Amish are wealthy, often through owning good land and farming it well. However, as everyone knows, the Amish have large families and you can only divide a farm up so many ways before it’s a mere garden patch. Often the oldest son, or the son who shows the most talent and desire to farm, gets the farm and the other sons move on to buy their own land or go into trade. Many Amish men today work in construction, crafts or shops. Lydia’s family owns a furniture store where other Amish work. We have an Amish “dining room”—amazing craftsmanship.
Since the Amish are known for being a private people, how much research can you actually get through them—or is it all observation?
All of the above. A great deal of it is in going where they go—an auction, a quilt shop, a furniture store. However, over the years as I’ve studied and mingled with the Amish, I have found sources willing to help me—and a few who said ‘No.’ Once one of them trusts you, he or she will be the pass to others. A timber framer (barn builder) once sent us to visit the barn of a friend of his, Levi Miller, on a back road. It was all populated by Millers, but we found the right place and, with that recommendation, they were very kind and open.
Do the Amish actually read the books about themselves?
The Amish are great readers. Although their formal education only goes through 8th grade, many are self-taught specialists in a variety of areas. But yes, the Amish flock to bookmobiles and libraries. Some write columns for their nationwide newspaper called THE BUDGET. They are great letter writers, which is sadly getting to be a lost art among the rest of us “worldly people.” I sign books at the big Buckeye Book Fair every year in Wooster, Ohio, the heart of Amish country. They Amish come in there and have bought my books, then returned the next year to buy again or chat, so I guess I pass muster.
Are you working on another suspense with an Amish background?
I’m working on another suspense trilogy set in rural Ohio, but not among the Amish this time. My new COLD CREEK TRILOGY, out next year with the three books fairly close together, is set in southern Ohio on the edge of Appalachia—another fascinating area and people. I love to write about unique American enclaves, so Appalachia fits that well. With the Amish, there is tension between the Plain People and the World. In Appalachia, it’s between those who have lived there for decades and the “intruders,” the rich folk who have a weekend home there or have built upscale neighborhoods to escape urban life—but no one can escape crime and man’s inhumanity to man.
Karen Harper is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of romantic suspense and historical novels. Published since 1982, she is a former college and high school English instructor. Harper won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for DARK ANGEL. She divides her time between Ohio and Florida.
To learn more about Karen, please visit her website.