Before writing this book, I knew three things about the Shakers: they forbade sex, they made beautiful furniture, and they “shook,” whatever that meant. I felt about the sect the way most Manhattanites do the Empire State Building: appreciative from a distance but not particularly interested.
It is also true, however, that I have spent—and continue to spend—all of my summers and most of my weekends living in a converted Shaker meeting house that was bought by my grandfather in the 1930s. He was a successful playwright and screenwriter who despised Hollywood and preferred to combine writing with working on the small dairy farm he built up in the fields surrounding the meeting house.
At the height of his career, just before winning an Oscar for writing the screenplay of Gone With the Wind, he was killed in a tractor accident on the farm. He was only 48 years old and left behind a widow, four young children, a mountain of debts and a beautiful but now haunted property.
The melancholy of that place remains intact to this day, and, even more than the Shaker house, it informs the tone of my book. So did the summers I spent playing and working on the farm, which, over the decades, my grandmother—and then my uncle—managed to keep going. I grew up knowing that, even in the modern era, dairy farming is soul-crushing work.
How must it have been back in the 1840s? Hardship in 19th Century rural New England seems to have known no bounds: the filth of living without plumbing, on very little food, with livestock roaming free in the front yard; the prevalence of alcoholism and domestic violence; the huge gap between rich and poor; the long, brutal winters and short, unreliable summers; the isolation; and finally, the loss of sons and daughters to lives spent working in factories instead of on the family farm.
This became the backdrop for much of my book, and to me, it helped explain why a person—particularly a battered woman or a poor couple seeking food and shelter for their children—would have made the sacrifices that the Shakers demanded of their converts.
Forced indenture of children. No contact of any kind with the opposite sex. Total confession. Complete divestiture of land and material wealth. And, to my mind, strangest of all: no recognition of blood relations or spouses. To sign on with the Shakers was to accept an often dreary, cult-like existence, but for a certain type of person in a certain type of bind, it almost made sense.
In a compendium of prayers and songs written during the 1840s revival period, I found that one particular document really snagged my attention. It was a song used to indoctrinate children against their parents, also known as their “fleshly kindred.”
A couple of the verses go like this:
Of all the good friends that I ever possess
I certainly love good believers the best:
So good and so pretty, so clever they feel
To see them and love them increases my zeal.
Of all the relations that I ever see
My old fleshly kindred are furthest from me:
So bad and so ugly, so hateful they feel
To see them and hate them increases my zeal.
It seems that, far from being the holier-than-thou do-gooders I had them figured for, the Shakers were a fascinatingly repressive yet imaginative group, one whose traditions and history I feel fortunate to have stumbled across and immersed myself in for the better part of a decade.