Well, this one certainly won’t qualify for Book Riot’s Read Harder 2020 task about a murder mystery with no women victims! And it was a bit of a difficult read because of that–there are a number of reviews on Goodreads complaining about the level of violence in the book. For a reading challenge about setting, however, it was a pretty good read–I learned a few things about Ohio’s large Amish country and the people who live there. And the hero of the story is a wonderfully bad-ass, yet realistic, woman Police Chief.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or those where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. We are currently in Ohio. (Note: I read this in March 2020, and had started writing the review when everything went to hell (#2020sucks), but I’m finishing this review on New Year’s Eve, so it won’t be published until almost a year after reading.)

When we read Nebraska, one of our books–Haven’s Wake–allowed us to learn about the Mennonite community there, including the practice of shunning, and how damaging that can be. In Sworn to Silence, Linda Castillo gives us a window into the Amish community, and is at pains to explain that the bann is not done to hurt or punish, but to bring someone back to the fold. Like so many things in life, I don’t think it’s black and white, and much depends on the people who do it and their motives–both stated and underlying. The Amish and Mennonites are, in the end, human beings, with all of the accompanying foibles and faults. Which means that occasionally their motives are suspect, and they may be cruel or overly-righteous or seeking to punish. Those instances may be greatly outnumbered by the instances of loving correction, but even “tough love” can be exactly the wrong approach to reach certain people. Castillo says in her Author’s Note that it was “extremely important for me to depict the Amish culture correctly, without bias, and without stereotype.” In general, I feel that she did that–and she doesn’t shy from depicting Amish wrong-doers, either–but I would be interested in seeing her deal with the bann in a more progressive way in other books – or at least in a way that acknowledges the other side of the issue. To Castillo’s credit, the main character of the book grew up Amish, but chose to leave the church.

When I was eighteen years old and announced I would not be joining the church, the Amish bishop put me under the bann. My family wouldn’t take meals with me. It wasn’t done to injure, but in the hope I would come to my senses and live the life God had planned for me. I felt banished and alone.

Linda Castillo in Sworn to Silence

Although the character is hurt by the bann, she recognizes the intent, and stays her course, living outside the Amish community, but with intimate knowledge of their ways and a measure of acceptance among them.

The issue of the bann is really secondary, though, to all the other tidbits of Amish life that she gives us in a realistic, but mostly outsider’s, view. Castillo gives a fair amount of information in her Author’s Note, including an abridged history of the Anabaptists, from their persecution in Europe to their settlements in America, both in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the Amish Country in Holmes County, Ohio, which is now the largest Amish settlement in the world. But, again, it’s the little details that bring the setting to life:

The house smells of coffee and frying scrapple, an Amish breakfast staple consisting of cornmeal and pork.

Linda Castillo in Sworn to Silence

There are unexpected tidbits, such as one about, “Ellis–van Creveld syndrome, a form of dwarfism found all too often in the Amish population,” alongside references to “the traditional beard of a married Amish man,” or traditional gender roles: “The Amish are a patriarchal society. The sexes are not necessarily unequal, but their roles are separate and well defined.”

Other times, the information is a bit more extensive:

Most Amish do not believe in having their photographs taken, citing images as evidence of pride. Some believe photos and even paintings depicting faces violate the Biblical commandment, Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image. Some of the old order still believe a photo steals the soul.

Linda Castillo in Sworn to Silence

In terms of learning about Ohio, we get to see Ohio as farm country, and it was refreshing to have the book set outside the major cities and their suburbs. Other than a few flashbacks, most of the story takes place in the winter, and Castillo gives us more than just the surface descriptions, even when the comments are brief: “January in northeastern Ohio is a cold and dark month.” Or this description about ice skating on the local pond:

The sky hovered heavy and low as she trudged through the woods toward the pond. The ice would be rough today. That happened when snow fell, melted and refroze. There was no way around Mother Nature’s quirks. … Slinging her skates over her shoulder, Cori crested the hill and Miller’s Pond loomed before her like a big tarnished nickel. She ran down the embankment toward the lacing stump and kicked off her boots. Cold snaked through all three pairs of socks, and by the time she’d laced up, she was shivering. Pulling on her mittens, Cori wobbled down the bank, stepped onto the ice and pushed off. The rough surface didn’t slow her down. In that instant she was Michelle Kwan. The winter-dead cattails were adoring fans brought to their feet by the grace and beauty of the young skater from Painters Mill, Ohio.

Linda Castillo in Sworn to Silence

The descriptions of the people can be earthy, but feel real:

“Tell me about Donny Beck.” “Not much to tell. He’s a clerk at Quality Implement. Likes Copenhagen and Bud and blondes with big tits. His biggest goal in life is to manage the store. Amanda’s too smart to get tangled up with someone like that. She knows there’s more to life than cow shit and corn.”

Linda Castillo in Sworn to Silence

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo was a wonderful addition to our reading challenge list for Ohio–at least in terms of the areas I’m mentioning here; it’s also a gritty, violent, serial murder thriller. Which sort of adds to our general feeling of bleakness for Ohio. Not entirely, as there are plenty of decent folks in the book, too, but anytime you add a string of gruesome murders with sexual assault… well, it’s not exactly pleasant reading. If you can handle the rape and murder, though, it really does give some great insights into Amish Country in Ohio.