A Gathering of Secrets by Linda Castillo is a powerful story. From the very first page, when a young Amish woman commits suicide, the plot takes on a dark and gripping tone, a very thought-provoking
novel. Bur readers should not be surprised considering Castillo books are always insightful and riveting.
The story begins with
Amish teenager Emma Miller hanging herself and then fast forwards six months where Painter Mills police chief Kate Burkholder is called to investigate a body found in a burned barn. The initial reaction is that it was a freak accident, but as the evidence
builds up Kate suspects murder. This eighteen-year-old Amish boy, Daniel Gingerich, is found inside, burned alive, and barricaded in the tack room with no way to escape. She is baffled since it appears Daniel has no enemies in the world, yet, he
dies a harsh and cruel death. The investigation takes on twists and turns since Daniel has a secret life. Secrets are the heart of the story as the Amish community stays silent, basically attempting to stonewall the case. Kate begins to wonder
if this peaceful and deeply religious community is conspiring to hide a truth no one wants to talk about.
As she wades through a sea of suspects,
she’s confronted by her own violent past, which made her leave the Amish community. She finds that there are many parallels to her past as the rape of Amish girls are hidden, and not talked about or reported. This part of the story is very relevant to
issues of today. It is an Amish MeToo Moment. What also makes the plot authentic is Kate’s reflection on the Amish sects, their principles, rules, and her ability to speak the Dutch language.
Castillo is a master at building suspense with intense and dark secret undertones. This harrowing thriller, with so many interesting characters, emphasizes how religious beliefs influence
the communities’ morality and the desire to obtain justice.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the series?
Linda Castillo: That’s a difficult question to answer without giving away too much but I’ll take my best shot. One of the elements of writing crime fiction that I love—and
always strive to find—is the unexpected. The unexpected in terms of motive. The unexpected in terms of the suspect. Those elements can never come from out of left field. They must be part of the story. I believe I achieved that
with A Gathering of Secrets. That’s about all I can say without including a spoiler.
LC: I’m not Amish although I have been asked that question on more than one occasion. I’m originally from Ohio’s farm country, so I’ve
always been aware of the Amish. As a child, I wasn’t particularly interested. As an adult, while I was working on the idea of writing a big thriller I made a trip to Amish Country. That trip prompted the core idea for the Kate Burkholder
series. I found myself fascinated by the culture, the history, the religion. I couldn’t think of a more interesting setting, especially for a thriller. As a writer, I was intrigued by that juxtaposition of the bucolic setting standing
in such sharp contrast to crime—or evil. In addition to the mystery, the books also offer an intimate glimpse into the Amish culture. I wanted to explore that culture. I wanted to write a protagonist that could immerse us not only in
the Amish world, but the “English” world as well.
EC: You write in the acknowledgements that this novel was
difficult to write. Why?
LC: It was because of the subject matter. The book opens with a young Amish woman committing suicide. Readers do not know why, but
as they turn the pages they begin to understand what happened to her. There is also this young man who was burned to death, a very sad situation. As the investigation takes on an ominous tone, I chose to explore the question, is murder justified?
EC: You write how suicide is viewed by the Amish?
This girl felt helpless. I hope I showed how one of the Amish beliefs gave her courage. This is why I wrote, “At some point, she’d begun to cry. But she thought they were tears of happiness, of relief. Mamm had always told
her that death was part of God’s divine plan. She knew the Lord would welcome her with open arms. He would see her through this.”
EC: How has the Amish community reacted to your stories?
LC: I am going to see one of my Amish friends when I am on tour in July. He loves these
books. On the other side, I did hear from another Amish man who is from a more Conservative sect. He was really upset after reading an earlier book, Breaking Silent, and told me he burned the book.
EC: This story did not show the Amish community in a good light?
LC: I think that we
should never generalize the entire community. But in this story, the community did try to sweep things under the rug. The mother of the girl who committed suicide was first seen as uncaring and not supportive of her daughter. The parent reactions
depend on how they were raised and which sect they were from. Another girl, Ruth, who became pregnant from a rape, had her mother decide to find her a husband to pass the baby off as her husbands. Each mother tried to sweep the secret under the rug.
EC: Why do you think the mothers had the attitude, “God doesn’t let things like that happen to good girls.
She must’ve done something to tempt him”?
LC: In my research I read that an Amish boy who does something terribly wrong, even raping someone, can get off.
If he confesses before the Church congregation, he is forgiven. This is why I wrote the girls not speaking up, some committing suicide, because they knew the boy would have been forgiven and they would be caught up in the stigma.
EC: Many of the Amish boys are not likeable characters?
I write one of them as a little weasel. He knew that girls were getting raped and did nothing. He even saw what happened to one personally and did not step up to the plate to stop it. It was very satisfying for me as a writer to have Kate
slap the cigarette out of his mouth.
EC: It was surprising to see the Amish did not object to some modern technology, such
as fire engines, autopsies, using the dentist/emergency rooms, and having cell phones?
LC: They have absolutely no problem using modern medicine. Many times, if there
is an illness they will first try folk remedies. If that doesn’t work they will go to a dentist or doctor. Regarding the cell phone or technology, if it is used for business many think it is OK. When it comes to business or making money they
are very enterprising. I think many are more lenient with their business life than their personal life. There are community phone booths. Teenagers on Rumspringa will buy a cell phone. This is a period in their life when they are not yet
baptized, and they have not joined the Church, so they are free to drink, have modern technology, and dress as an “Englisher,” with their parents looking the other way.
EC: Does it depend on the different faction of Amish?
LC: There are sub-groups of the Anabaptists that include
the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. They were very persecuted during the Reformation in Europe because they believed in adult Baptism. Now there are sub-groups of Amish, which I write about in the book, the Beachy Amish and the Swartzentruber. One
of the girls, Neva Lambright, who was a Beachy Amish, could drive a car, use a cash register at her business, and wore clothes that were decoratively colored. But I contrast her with the Swartzentruber Amish who are much more Conservative. They
do not allow indoor plumbing, have no running water in the house, and do not have gravel driveways. They will not have windshields on their buggies, which makes for hard times with inclement weather.
EC: How do you come up with all those Amish names?
LC: Usually I go to Holmes County Ohio, the largest Amish
community in the world. I actually have an old Amish directory, a huge book that I go through. The most popular Amish name is Miller, which is why they are prone to use nicknames like Abe “chicken” Miller, the Miller who raises chickens.
EC: Why the pets of chicks?
LC: Kate and her beau,
John Tomasetti, both work too much to have a dog or cat. I wanted to use subtle symbolism for Kate and Tomasetti, as they put down permanent roots. In this story John gives Kate strength and support. Each are absolutely nuts for each other. I hope readers
see it as a touching scene. Chicks were chosen so Kate could relate to her past, since she grew up in a rural setting. Even though John is a city guy he is also really into the farm scene. I guess subconsciously I used chicks because I grew
up in a rural area.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the story?
LC: Entertainment, but also a feeling that everything was tied up. I am curious to hear what they thought of this story.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
LC: A mystery involving a murder that happens at the same time an Amish girl goes missing.
In future books, I know that in my writer’s mind John is holding back a secret as he keeps his cards close to his chest. I will play one of my favorite writer games, “what-if.” I need to make their relationship and John’s
secret relevant to the Amish Community.