Romance novelist Shelley Shepard Gray first learned about Pinecraft when she noticed something unusual about an Amish friend’s daughter and granddaughter: They had tans. In Ohio. In February. They had just returned from a vacation in Sarasota. Gray, who’s not Amish herself, asked them to tell her all about it.
That happenstance led to Brides of Pinecraft, a quartet of novels and one novella set in Sarasota and rooted in a literary genre many have never heard of: Amish romance. Often called bonnet romances or (half-jokingly) bonnet rippers, these novels make up a booming subgenre of Christian romance, with sales hovering around 30 million copies, according to one Newsweek estimate.
Don’t expect erotic fireworks. These books are chaste, with nary a heaving bosom in sight. But that doesn’t mean the emotions are simple. The Promise of Pine Grove, the first entry in Gray’s Pinecraft series, details one young woman’s conflicted feelings about her domineering fiancé and the thrill she feels in escaping to Sarasota for two weeks. “I don’t make them seem like saints,” Gray says, explaining why her books appeal to the Amish and non-Amish alike. “I make them seem like real people.”
For the Sarasota reader, Gray’s books offer an additional allure—insight into a culture we see every day but don’t know much about. We read about stolen glances at pretty girls across the room at Yoder’s and the way a pleated skirt signifies that one girl comes from Indiana. And we hear the neighborhood’s dialect, heavy with “jah” and “gut.”
Gray spent five days here researching Pinecraft. “Every once in a while I’ll start looking at Sarasota on the Internet,” Gray says. “I keep telling my husband, ‘Wouldn’t it be so nice to be there right now?’” Particularly in the winter, when you come back to chilly Ohio with a tan.