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.

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