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Book Report: Murder mystery, romance revolves in Amish community

Forty years ago, when Amish families began buying up farms in western Wisconsin, my father wasn't too enthused. He owned a business on Main Street in Whitehall, and worried that the incursion of buggies, beards and black bonnets might hurt his business.

I asked him what he had against these peaceable folk.

"Nothing really," he replied, "but all they'll buy on Main Street is salt and black thread."

Dad turned out to be wrong about that and before I knew it he was enamored with his new neighbors who bought special cigars at his restaurant and reminded him of the old days, when he was a kid.

When an Amish relative died in another part of the state, my father was glad to drive the mourners to the funeral because he liked to talk to them and try to figure out why they do what they do and why we, the "Englishers," don't do that anymore.

My father is long gone, but I know he'd enjoy a book I just received: "A Simple Winter," by Rosalind Lauer (Ballantine Books, $15, paper). Lauer now lives in Oregon, but grew up in Maryland and often visited Lancaster County, Pa., and became fascinated with Amish culture.

And so it happened that this former Simon and Schuster editor found a niche in the mystery market; an Amish niche.

"A Simple Winter" finds hip journalist Remy McCallister assigned to cover a story about the murder of an Amish couple in Lancaster County. She arrives in the tightly knit community and -- you guessed it -- falls in love with Adam King, the handsome son of the murdered Amish couple.

Adam left the fold to seek his fortune, but returned to Pennsylvania to look after his siblings in an extended version of the Amish rite of passage that allows them to wander in the fields of Englishers.

A romance blossoms, despite the differences in the two cultures (Remy's father is a rich man who has little time for his daughter because he's so busy marrying women). And therein lies the fascination of this book.

I thought I knew quite a bit about Amish ways, but it's obvious that Lauer knows more. She has a fine ear for dialogue, mixing German and English with a sure hand.

For that I say, "Denki" (thanks), for writing an engrossing tale and enlarging my appreciation of my father's "new" neighbors.

On the regional front, Minneapolis' Judith Yates Borger does for newspaper lore what White Bear Lake author Julie Kramer does for Television News.

Borger's new book, "Whose Hand?" (Nodin Press, $16.95 paper), finds her heroine Skeeter Hughes working for the Minneapolis Citizen. Skeeter explains how newspapering has drastically changed in the past few years:

@ti:"The folks at the top of the journalism food chain have been going through all kinds of contortions trying to stave off obsolescence. Hence, Thom (Skeeter's boss) became a team leader instead of an editor, even though the bulk of his time is spent editing.

"The rest of his time he's under tremendous pressure from managers above him and reporters below. Those on top want him to fill the paper every single day with interesting, informative stories that people will want to read. The people below him want to write those stories, but they usually want the time to do them well....That costs money the newspaper's shareholders don't have. To stanch the red ink, many papers have fired staff....some like our newspaper have filed for bankruptcy...."

@tl:So that's the situation Skeeter finds herself in. She has to produce or get laid off.

But then a story drops in her lap. An old duffer named BJ tells her that last fall he was fishing in Lake Harriet when he reeled in a person's hand.

Whose hand was it?

It'll be Skeeter's job to find out -- or lose her job.

Borger embellishes her story with all manner of local references: The Linden Hills neighborhood above Lake Harriet; Sebastian Joe's wonderful ice cream parlor; and, of course, the local newspaper, The Citizen, which is obviously the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

But you don't have to know much about Minneapolis to enjoy this crackling good story with a bizarre ending that will surprise the most jaded mystery reader.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book critics circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call him at 715-426-9554.