Most Americans can be divided into two camps: those who’ve never heard of Mennonites, and those who lump them in with the Amish as bonnet-wearing, electricity-eschewing, horse-and-buggy-driving proponents of simple living. And they wouldn’t exactly be wrong. They trace their roots back to the same fifteenth-century Swiss-German religious movement that birthed the Amish and share with them the core values of pacifism, simplicity, and community. But these days most Mennonites don’t see the need for special clothing or cultural practices to mark them as different from the rest of the world. Except for their commitment to pacifism, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them and your run-of-the-mill Baptists or Evangelicals.
Rosedale, Ohio, is a geographic center for one of these modern Mennonite movements. It’s home to the Conservative Mennonite Conference, a group formed from churches that broke off from the Old Order Amish in the mid-1800s, and Rosedale Bible College, a two-year Mennonite religious school. Here, “conservative” refers to belief more than lifestyle; women who are part of the Conservative Mennonite Conference don’t wear special bonnets and anyone who can afford a car probably has one. These are your ordinary, non-exotic Mennonites, the kind who listen to Christian rock and, in some cases, chain themselves to fences at military bases.
But that’s real life, and real life is boring. Fiction is better, because sometimes you can get at a deeper truth—or at least a more interesting one—by fudging the facts. Glee does this all the time by making Lima sometimes seem like a smaller, more remote, more podunk town than it is in reality, and by sometimes turning it into a thriving metropolis with every imaginable feature from a roller-skating rink to a gay bar to a thriving complex of crack houses.
Glee also transformed Rosedale into a center for the kind of Mennonites who are less common these days: plain-dressing Mennonites, the ones who—in their frumpy dresses and suspendered trousers—look to the untrained eye like Amish. Like the Amish, they tend to live in rural communities and have large families. But focus your eyes and you’ll start to notice the differences: The women’s bonnets may be more translucent or a different color; the married men are clean-shaven instead of wearing the Amish beard; the kids might run around in colorful sneakers that blink when they run, and their clothes incorporate buttons and zippers without apology. Open your eyes wider and you might notice more substantial differences: telephone lines running into the house, a car in the driveway, a truck or combine outside the barn, the glow of electric lights emanating from the kitchen at night.
Walk up to the side of the house and look into that window. You spy a woman in plain dress disassembling a Cuisinart and placing its parts into the top rack of an electric dishwasher before wiping down the motor with a damp sponge, all the while humming along to classical music. You’re hypnotized by the sight of her. She looks a lot like how you imagined Ma from Little House on the Prairie would be, if you ever read those books. But she’s in a clean, modern house with running water and a refrigerator. The walls are SheetRock—not packed dirt or roughhewn slabs of wood—and instead of being coated in whitewash, they’re painted a bright, cheery yellow.
Either she’s an anachronism, or the kitchen is.
The woman turns off the lights and leave the kitchen, breaking your spell. A breeze picks up, rustling the leaves of the cherry tree overhead. It’s September, and on a cloudless night like tonight, the air turns brisk. You shiver and start walking to ward off the chill.
But you don’t get far. A light flicks on in a second-story window and, like a moth to flame, you’re drawn to it. You stop and look up.
A teenage boy stands inches from the glass as he looks out into the night. He is plain, and not just in dress: his face is unremarkable, his pale skin dull and without a hint of rosiness. His face is too thin, a sign either of under-eating or growing too fast. His hair is mousy brown. His gaze is set toward the barn, but from his expression you know that he doesn’t see it. His focus doesn’t go past the window; it occurs to you he’s probably looking at the window, and particularly at his own face in it.
He’s frowning. Why? Is he disappointed in what he sees?
You suddenly feel protective of him. He’s not ugly. He’s just not exceptional. But very few of us can be, and as a Mennonite that’s what he should want, right? To blend in with all the other Mennonites, to never stand out in the crowd.
He does stand out, though, even without trying.
Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Unruh wants nothing more than to be like every other Mennonite man in this fictional Rosedale, Ohio, where the plain-dressing Mennonites outnumber the mainstream ones by legions. He wants to follow the church: to get baptized after he turns nineteen but before he turns twenty-five, to marry an obedient Mennonite girl, and to raise another generation of plain people.
Or, he wants to want those things.
But his heart rebels against him. It keeps drawing his thoughts to Seth Groening, with his wide shoulders and callused fingertips, his hair the color of a wheatfield in September, his lips that redden to rose petals when he’s worked too hard or been kissed too much. Jonathan keeps thinking of the last time he saw Seth—of the regret in Seth’s eyes that seemed to match Jonathan’s own, of the words they didn’t say, of how hard it was not to nuzzle his nose into Seth’s damp neck when they hugged. Of how hard it was to let go.
Jonathan didn’t let himself cry then, and he doesn’t let himself cry now.
Watching a person not fall apart can be more painful than watching them crumble. There is no way to offer comfort to the Stoic. Of course, you couldn’t offer comfort to Jonathan Unruh if you wanted to. You are, after all, spying on him, peeking in on a stranger’s most intimate loneliness.
You come to a sudden awareness of where you are, and that you don’t belong. You turn again to go, but as you reach the driveway you drop something you always carry with you—your phone maybe, or your wallet, or a keychain with too many clanking keys. It hits the asphalt, then skitters across it. You can’t see where it went. You curse.
Behind you, you hear a window sash scraping against its frame. Fuck. Someone heard you. You duck behind the car in the driveway so they won’t also see you.
“Seth?” It’s an older boy’s voice, low and raspy, but still soft with youth. “Seth? Is that you?”
Jonathan’s tone is of a whisper, but it’s loud enough to carry to you. You hold your breath in case your quietness is just as noisy. You count the seconds as they pass. Too many go by. You have to breathe again. You start counting breaths instead, focusing on each inhalation and exhalation to make sure they’re silent.
“Seth? Where are you?” His voice cracks on the last word.
You wish Seth would answer.
Instead, a child speaks—boy or girl, you’re not sure, but the voice is coming from inside the house. “What do you have the window open for, Jonathan? It’s freezing!”
“It’s not freezing,” Jonathan answers. “By April, you’ll be calling this weather warm.”
“It’s not April yet.”
The window closes anyway. You resume your search for the thing you dropped. Now that you’re on the ground, it’s easy to locate it. Your part in this story is complete. You found your lost thing.
But Jonathan’s story is just beginning. He’s nowhere near recovering what he lost. He has a hole in the center of his chest that probably won’t ever be filled again.
There’s no turning back.