Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Believers by Janice Holt Giles

My mother is very interested in Kentucky history and literature. A couple of months ago, the local library hosted an event which featured an actress performing a monologue based on the life of Mary Settles, the last Shaker at the Pleasant Hill Village. Although I had visited Shakertown as a child and I remember owning a doll from there that had a smiling face on one end and a frown on the other end. It's hard to explain and I don't have the actual doll for a picture and I do not recommend doing a search for "Naughty nice doll" on Google images, because even with safe search on, I got some pretty weird hits.

I didn't know much about the Shakers before the dialogue. I knew that "Simple Gifts" and "How Can I Keep from Singing" were Shaker hymns, that they had sent aid to Ireland during the potato famine, and that their name came from movements in their worship services. The monologue was enlightening, since it told both the story of Mary Settles (who was abandoned by her husband at Shakertown) and the history of the Pleasant Hill village, as well as the overall history and beliefs. The monologue painted them in a very positive light, pointing out that they were very progressive on social issues like race relations and equality for women and that they also took in orphans. The Shakers required celibacy from their members and didn't allow private property for full members. In a nutshell, it was a very Utopian society that's lasted for a surprisingly long time. Mary Settles died in 1923 and was the last of the Kentucky Shakers, but there is still an active village in Maine with three members (and yes, there's a website.

I'm not going to go into Shaker history or beliefs very much, since I don't know enough to really discuss it and even if I did, there's so much to discuss. I recommend a little research, though, because it is fascinating and I plan to do more eventually.

The Believers gave a much less favorable view of the Shakers. It takes place in the late 1700's and early 1800's and is the story of Rebbecca Fowler who marries Richard Cooper, the son of her neighbors. Rebbecca and Richard had been friends since childhood and Richard's parents were slightly more prosperous than Rebbecca's family. Richard is a serious, devout, hard-working man and when they marry, his parents give them some of their property to build their house and start a farm, as well as two slaves, Sampson and Cassie, along with their daughter, Jency.

The first few months of their marriage are idyllic, but then their first child is stillborn, which is devastating to both of them. While trying to cope with his grief, Richard attends a revival and decides to follow one of the ministers to form a new settlement. As Rebbecca is getting used to this change, a few Shaker missionaries arrive and Richard decides to join the Shakers. Rebbecca, believing that her place is with her husband, follows him, albeit with misgivings.

The Believers takes a long, hard look at the realities of the Shaker environment. While most of the full members are very devout, they're nowhere near perfect. There is pride and ambition, as well as the difficulties that come with forcing a group of people to live in close quarters. The women in Rebbecca's "family" (actual families are separated and divided into church families, where the children are raised separately and the men and women are segregated) formed a fairly tight bond, but there was also significant conflict among the women. A lot of them chafed at various aspects of the religion. Giles did a wonderful job of showing the problems encountered when a large group of self-sufficient adults are suddenly forced into a highly disciplined environment.

The one problem I had with the book is that it was very much a product of its time. The slaves played a significant role in the book and Giles's treatment of them was probably progressive for when it was written (1957), but reading a book about an extremely racist time written in a very racist time... Well, I believe Giles did her best to portray the slaves positively, but the slaves, especially Jency, still came off an inferiors who needed someone to guide and care for them.

In spite of the problems, I enjoyed it. I also found out that The Believers is the third book in the series. I plan to read the rest of the series as well as doing more research on the Shakers. I'd also love to visit Shakertown over the holidays, since some of the events on their website look amazing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alcestis by Katharine Beutner

I've been slacking off recently with reading and blogging. I'm not really sure whether it's a result of things being slightly more hectic than usual or the fact that I can't seem to get into the books I've been trying to read lately. Either way, here I am with a finished book.

Alcestis is a retelling of the play by Euripides with a feminist twist. In Greek mythology, Alcestis was married to King Admetus who offended Artemis by failing to sacrifice to her following the wedding. She filled Admetus's bed with snakes, but Apollo stepped in and allowed Admetus to avoid death if someone would volunteer to take his place. No one did, so Alcestis stepped forward. After that, Heracles rescued her from Hades and she and Admetus apparently lived happily ever after.

Despite having taken a classical literature course, I've never read the actual play. Like The Penelopiad, it really motivates me to go back and read more classical literature. In fact, one of my goals for 2012 (and one I may start early) is to dedicate some time to reading The Great Books of the Western World, since I recently discovered that my library has all of them. I also plan to work on a more comprehensive reading list to cover books that I should have read ages ago.

Anyway, I freely admit that I went into this novel at a disadvantage. I can't compare the novel to the original play, which is a shame since there seems to be a lot of interesting critique surrounding it.

What I can say is that I liked it. As expected, it was a pretty big deviation from the generally accepted views of Greek mythology. The male characters generally didn't fare favorably in the novel and were either undeveloped or definitely negative, ranging from abusive to cowardly to almost blundering. They absolutely weren't portrayed as heroic. I think there's something to the fact that the few "good" male characters are the ones who aren't really explored, which obviously makes you wonder if we just don't know enough about them to think poorly of them.

The women are fascinating, however. The story starts with the birth of Alcestis and the death of her mother. After that, she forms a close relationship with her older sister, Hippothoe and views her oldest sister, Pisidice, with confusion. Early on, Hippothoe dies due to her asthma and, more importantly, in Alcestis's view, Apollo's failure to intervene. Her search for Hippothoe in Hades becomes a driving force later in the book. After Hippothoe's death, Pisidice and Alcestis seem to reach an understanding, but their relationship is cut short when Pisidice marries. Pelias remarries and his wife, Philomache, plays a brief but important role until Alcestis is married.

After Alcestis' death, both Hades and Persephone play an important role, for different reasons. Persephone has always been, for me, someone who was just there and played a footnote in Greek mythology. Basically, "by the way, Hades kidnapped Persephone, Demeter got angry and caused winter, Zeus demanded she be returned, but she ate pomegranate seeds, so now we have seasons. The end, now let's move on to the important stuff," so it was really interesting to see how Beutner developed not only Persephone, but her relationship with Hades, her history, and her treatment of Alcestis.

I feel like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage for not having read the play and in hindsight, I wish I had. It would have given me more insight into what Beutner was doing with the characters. As it stands now, this is probably going to go on my "reread" list once I've really done a better study of Greek mythology.