SIMPLE GIFTS by June Sprigg


A Memoir of a Shaker Village
Email this review


A seasoned curator and historian of Shakeriana (By Shaker Hands, 1975) here fondly remembers her summerlong stay, 26 years ago, at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, then a living religious community. In the summer of 1972, Sprigg worked as a tour guide for visitors to the Canterbury Shakers. Her job brought her far more than an income. For it also provided her with the opportunity to befriend the seven elderly women who were then sustaining a two-centuries-old Shaker community even as it dwindled toward an end. Sweetly elegiac at its best, the book, enlivened by the author’s eloquent line drawings, evokes the personalities of these community stalwarts. There is Bertha Lindsay, the town’s eldress; Lillian Phelps, who forms its spiritual center; Gertrude Soule, a spunky commentator on all and sundry, whose health reports were indulgently dubbed “organ recitals”; the dowdy Ethel Hudson, who had settled into early retirement (a “loaf Believer”); elegant Alice Howland; the high-spirited Miriam Wall; and ominously Ethan Frome—ish—but giftedly green-thumbed—Mildred Wells, who hovered on the small society’s margins. Much, though not all, seems edenic among the Shakers, according to Sprigg’s observations. Citing an exception, she recounts the painful rift between Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake (for a look at the latter, see Suzanne Skees, God Among the Shakers, p. 255), a sibling community in Maine, over conflicting visions of the Shaker future, and also notes the tensions felt sometimes among Canterbury’s own members. Still, the memories dearest to the author--of ladies shifting gently in their front-porch rocking chairs or of their long-untouched, pine-scented attics--don—t always woo a reader’s interest. The odd imbalance befalling the frugal Shakers, who have spent and multiplied little, of abundant assets husbanded by a shrinking constituency of members (14, in 1972), is mirrored here in Sprigg’s surfeit of pages bent on describing a world-in-miniature. A chatty memorial with too much verbiage. (9 illustrations)

Pub Date: June 6th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-45504-3
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998