Josiah for President
by Martha Bolton
“If you can’t trust the Amish, who can you trust?” asks a gushing voter in Martha Bolton’s debut novel, Josiah for President, and like jesting Pilate, does not stay for an answer. Bolton may be a first-time novelist, but she’s an old hand at writing, with over eighty books to her name and a stint as a staff writer for Bob Hope – and this, more than anything else, saves her modern-day parable from being quite the same brand of gummy treacle most religious-book publishers churn out about the Amish. Zondervan has a particularly treacly track record in that regard, but this book is much smoother, more grounded, and of course funnier than anything they’ve ever published. That still doesn’t get us very far, but it’s something like a start.
The usual patter of Amish-oriented religious fiction is to stress idyllic Plain Way world the Amish have established for themselves in such places as our book’s initial setting, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Take that allegedly pristine world of bearded men, subservient women, and horse-drawn buggies, bathe it in a very predictable ‘things were so much better then’ glow, and present it to your millions of brain-pithed Christian readers as a story about a better, purer version of their faith, before “we all” got side-tracked by the cell phones and DVDs and DVRs of our crazy modern world. Such books – and there are dozens every year – scrupulously make no allusion to civil rights, post-grade school education, the benefits of modern medicine and such technological achievements as electricity, or the self-evident mass psychosis of a sect that behaves as if the last 400 years didn’t really happen. Instead, the Amish are portrayed as avatars of an almost childlike innocence – it’s the rest of “us” who are at fault.
It’s foul nonsense, explicable only by the fact that most Christians simply aren’t brave enough to attempt living their lives in direct engagement with the precepts of their Saviour (“Gimme That Old Time Religion” being code in all cases whatsoever for “Jesus told me to love my enemy, but if you so much as look at my daughter, I’ll pump you full of bird-shot”), but it sells books. Books based entirely on a fraudulent conception of the past and its connection to the present – time travel, in other words, for Buckeyes who’d never read the real thing.
So Bolton deserves at least a little credit for her playful premise, because although Josiah for President starts out in Lancaster Pennsylvania, it’s got much wider vistas in mind. Failed presidential hopeful Mark Stedman is driving through Lancaster when his GPS mistakenly sends his car into a ditch. Humble Amish farmer Josiah Stoltzfus and his horse help the stranded Congressman out, and in the course of their interaction, Stedman begins to conceive a madcap idea:
What if an Amish family really did move into the White House? What would that mean for America? Could an Amish man get the country back on track? Back to basics? It didn’t seem to be as ridiculous a notion as anyone originally thought. Could good old-fashioned common sense really be making a comeback?
Readers who find themselves nodding enthusiastically at such stuff will love Josiah for President. They’ll love the fact that Josiah handles himself with folksy charm during the presidential debates, wins in a landslide, turns off the electricity in the White House living quarters, and hitches his horses in the Rose Garden. Bolton writes smooth, engaging prose (and the scene where the Secret Service stumble over each other while trying to catch a runaway goat is genuinely charming), and it’s all in service to that idea of getting the country ‘back to basics.’
Readers who see an idiotic phrase like ‘back to basics,’ on the other hand, readers who know what the entire length of 20th century American history repeatedly taught – which is that ‘back to basics’ is always, always code-speak for denying equalities to black people, Hispanic people, Jewish people, gay people, and female people – well, Josiah for President wasn’t written for them in any case. Which is a bit ironic in its own right, since it’s those people who’ll see the book’s title and reflexively think, “But America’s already had a president named Josiah.”
They’ll be thinking of President Josiah Bartlet, immortally portrayed by Martin Sheen on TV’s The West Wing. And they’ll be a long way from home, in these pages. President Bartlet, after all, favored complexity.