Coming out of conservative culture

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of Plain: A Memoir of Mennonite Girlhood by Mary Alice Hostetter (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022)

In the prologue to her memoir, Mary Alice Hostetter describes an encounter at a farmers’ market with a Plain Mennonite girl wearing a cape dress and prayer covering. Hostetter wonders what the girl, selling vegetables at a market stall, might be thinking, whether she could surmise that Hostetter herself was once a conservative Mennonite girl, too – in the world but not of it, very much like the teen. This opening scene is captivating, establishing a clear contrast between who Hostetter is now and who she was at one time, when she also identified as Plain.

Plain: A Memoir of Mennonite Girlhood is a delightful narration of the author’s childhood, growing up in Lancaster, Pa., the 10th of 12 children. Hostetter describes the challenges she faced as a girl out of step with her conservative culture. The memoir-in-essays is published under a University of Wisconsin Press imprint, Living Out, which focuses on gay and lesbian autobiographies. The last part of Hostetter’s book narrates her decision to come out as a lesbian, one of many ways throughout her life that Hostetter defied cultural expectation about what and who a conservative Mennonite should be.

Hostetter felt those expectations everywhere, including on the farm, where gender roles were clearly defined. While her brothers helped their father in the fields, Hostetter assisted her mother in ironing, gardening, cooking, and cleaning. Keeping a large family fed takes significant effort, and Hostetter describes the work required of her. Her friends ate soup from the “red-and-white cans,” but not her family, and even at age 10, she was tasked with making soup for her family, which entailed a day’s worth of harvesting vegetables, soaking bones for broth, and adding her own unique touch, some buttonweed she’d picked.

This recipe flourish reflects a consistent theme in Plain: that Hostetter will do life in her own way, and on her own terms, while still trying to stay within the bounds of her Mennonite upbringing. One essay, “Simple Pleasure,” describes a Sunday summer afternoon, when Hostetter carried herself and a blanket into the middle of a wheat field, took her blouse off and hitched her skirt above her knees, and sunbathed while reading a book. “If no one could see me, surely it could not count as immodest,” Hostetter writes. “Only I would know, remember how good the sun felt on my bare shoulders and legs, savoring my delicious secret.”

The tension of her longing to be as her peers, while also obeying her parents and their Mennonite instruction, drive many of the book’s essays. Her Sunday school lessons reminded Hostetter often of the commandment to honor parents, a commitment she took seriously. Yet sometimes she felt what she called a “yearning” to a different life that her peers were experiencing, and as she grew older, that yearning gained intensity.

She writes about sneaking out to a movie as one of those crucible moments when she disobeyed her parents as well as the church’s teaching about films, and the crisis of conscience which followed. Did God really care about movies? she wondered. If God cared about movies, that might mean God also could “see into my soul and know what a sham I was, with all my doubts and questions.”

Questioning what she’s been told about God’s character is also a prevalent and powerful theme in Plain. Her mother’s deep concern that Hostetter “take Jesus as her personal savior” is treated lovingly by the author, who chaffs under religious expectation but also recognizes her mother’s acute torment about her daughter’s salvation. The essay “Billy Graham’s Necktie” narrates the pressure exerted on Hostetter at an evangelical revival, and the complicated decision she made to answer a revival pastor’s call.

Other demanding expectations challenged Hostetter as she grew older, including whether she could get a job outside of the farm, and then whether she might go to college. Although several of her older brothers had already left home and found academic success, Hostetter’s parents believed she needed to wait awhile, to help raise her younger siblings. Working at Plain and Fancy, an Amish-themed store, settled the question about a job, and a high school English teacher helped Hostetter navigate the college application process, providing a clear escape route for Hostetter. At the age of 18, she matriculated, and would never live with her parents for more than short periods after that, even as she still “wanted home to be there, solid and predictable, a world I could count on.”

The last essays in Plain detail Hostetter’s adulthood, including a stint as a teacher, then as a cheesemaker. Into her 50s, Hostetter continually felt rooted in the Mennonite culture that had raised her, even while trying to fit in with a more urbane crowd. Questions about where she fit followed Hostetter, who also felt loneliness in the midst of her many friendships, certain still that she would “one day find the right man for me.” Discovering her identity as a lesbian was “a dawning as gradual as a morning’s first light,” Hostetter writes. While she hoped at times that “she wasn’t a real lesbian,” Hostetter finally comes to terms with who she is, another way she seems out of step with her cloistered upbringing.

In the book’s final essay, Hostetter describes coming out to her father. He was in his 90s by then, and her mother already dead. Having heard that “homosexuality was an abomination” for much of their upbringing, her brother, Charles, decided to come out to their father, and wrote him a letter. The father’s astounding response (“If that’s how people are born, it sure doesn’t seem like something that should tear families apart”) emboldened Hostetter to do the same, but at that point, the news of a gay second child didn’t seem to cause a ripple.

The denouement of Hostetter’s story is a hopeful one. Her parents died before the Mennonite church fully grappled with LGBTQIA inclusion, and she didn’t have to see them make the choice of accepting either their gay children or the church. Hostetter’s dad, at least, seemed to have cast his lot with his gay son and daughter, knowing that their sexual identity wasn’t something worth splitting a family. The ending of Plain offers a beautiful paean to the farm of Hostetter’s Mennonite girlhood, a place where she established deep roots, allowing her to become the person God uniquely created her to be.