The title alone is sufficiently intriguing for most readers. This book is an entirely authentic look at what it feels like to encounter a dangerous cult as a small child, helpless but perhaps better able than some adults to see the emperor's lack of clothes.
The "emperor" in this case was a mysterious man who called himself Mack Sharky when he first entered an Amish community in Mississippi and began slowly to gather converts. Sharky changed his appellation many times after that, so author Hochstetler refers to him simply as The Elder. Sharky may have known that this particular group of Amish was a splinter faction, already broken off from a more established Amish settlement farther north. He may have sensed that being just a tiny bit rebellious by nature, these folk would be likely to split yet again but remain docile enough to authority to follow a charismatic leader. He attracted some of the Mississippi Amish by his prodigious knowledge of the Bible, and by his simplicity. He wore an odd stovepipe hat and only changed his clothes when he found the Amish ladies willing to sew for him. He cadged food and lodging easily from the generous Amish, and was only seen to cry one time - he shed a tear of frustration when he was not allowed to interrupt an Amish church meeting.
The Elder - who titled himself The Nazarite - seemed self-satisfied with his own odd ways, but he was not satisfied with others until he could mold them to be more like him, or like he decided they should be. He enlisted a small band of followers among the Mississippi Amish, who saw him as a true spiritual leader - born Jewish yet well-versed in the New Testament, and completely self-confident that his way was the right way. He taught them that he was uniquely called to observe Sabbath every day - therefore he did not have to do any work, which extended to refusing to help others if such help might involve any action remotely like work. He tapped into the hard-working, humble ethos of Amish culture to gather around him a group of men and women willing to obey him slavishly.
Among that group were Patricia Hochstetler's mother and father. From living in a rather pleasant community near her mother's Amish family in Mississippi, the author was transported to a backwoods region of southern Tennessee to live in total isolation from the outside world. The band was completely bound by rules of secrecy. At first they bought farmland where relatives could visit, but The Elder soon put an end to that by ordering them to purchase land located far from civilization, with locked gates and only a post office box for reference. No one outside the group could find the compound anymore.
The Elder's faithful cut down trees, set up a sawmill, built their own houses (and his, of course) and lived entirely off the land. The Amish were easily able
- in fact, anxious - to adopt this self-sufficient life that embraced God's abundance so totally. Even the author's father, who was not Amish but esteemed the Amish virtues, was absolutely willing to obey The Elder in order to live in what to most of the participants seemed like a latter-day Eden.
But the child Patricia – renamed "Lois" by The Elder - noticed that things were awry in Paradise. A few people brought pets to the Elder's farm, but as the pets died they were not replaced. Children were never to "play", and The Elder condemned both laughter and tears. Any activity that brought enjoyment was discouraged, so that after a short time only work remained. The author's father (whom she was no longer allowed to address as "Daddy," but only "Dad" or "Father") apparently had a nervous breakdown, babbling to himself incessantly and no longer acknowledging his family. No one could seek medical help, and one of the author's young cousins lived miserably with a festering leg wound while another languished for months with the after-effects of a rattlesnake bite. One young man who dared question the Elder was simply taken by his own father and dropped off in Delaware with $100 and no other resources. Hochstetler's grandmother was forbidden to talk to a favorite sister because it was deemed too pleasurable by The Elder. Her grandfather had to choke back his rebellious thoughts (and common sense) when The Elder ordered him to pump water uphill. Her mother remained an implacable dedicated unquestioning follower of The Elder despite these cracks in the façade of his infallibility.
This is a three-part series, and the story ends with "Lois" posing many questions in a childlike perspective about why the Elder's world, so supposedly perfect, displays so many bizarre and indeed painful inconsistencies. The book is short, simple and totally absorbing; I read it
in one sitting and will be anxiously awaiting the sequel.