A historical novel that explores the precarious position of pacifist Shakers during the American Civil War.
Austin Innes left his home, in what would later be Oklahoma, at an early age and took to a shiftless life of temporary romances. A group of strangers who call themselves Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—and whom others simply call the Shakers—show him great kindness while giving him a boat ride. He ultimately joins their community in South Union, Kentucky, and becomes a schoolmaster. Meanwhile, Harry Littlebourne, a young Native American man of uncertain extraction, leaves the land in Ohio that his Quaker father left him and wanders into the same Shaker territory. He’s remarkably tight-lipped and almost childlike in his simplicity; Austin becomes his mentor, and they jointly assume a similar role for Amos Anger, a young orphan in town. But as the conflict between North and South crescendos, the Shakers are forced into a seemingly impossible quandary. As committed pacifists, they want to remain neutral and avoid military conscription by either side. They also staunchly believe in the equality of black people, who live freely among them, which complicates their efforts to stay out of the war. Austin wrestles with this predicament on his own; despite his unwavering devotion to his religious principles, he feels drawn to participating in the conflict, as he’s uncomfortable with the idea of being a passive witness. Meanwhile, Shaker locals Harvey Eades and Elder John Rankin write a letter to President Abraham Lincoln anxiously requesting an exemption from military service even as more of the community’s members elect to join the fray.
In her debut novel, Stevens masterfully explains the complex contours of the Shaker predicament. For example, any assertion of neutrality led to their members being depicted as “collaborators or cowards.” She also shows how the Confederates found even more fuel for their disdain: “Slave and slaveholder alike received kind attention at Shaker hands, and it was chiefly this that the secessionists found intolerable.” Shakers were apparently known for their painstaking record-keeping, and most of the plot is based closely on the real-life journals of Eldress Nancy E. Moore and Elder Harvey Eades. The author’s historical research is impressively rigorous, and she nimbly brings to life the moral struggle of an intriguing, little-understood group of Americans. Furthermore, she ably dramatizes the plight of Kentucky—a state with no deficit of supporters for either side of the war—as its government also tried desperately to remain neutral. The chief failing of the book, however, is its pacing, as the plot unfolds too languorously; it also introduces a new, major subplot late in the story. Stevens is at her best when painting the big picture—the grand drama of the war and the specific tribulations of the Shakers, who loved their country but remained culturally separate from it. It’s hard to recall a fictional exploration of the Shakers that’s more historically searching or sensitive.
An often mesmerizing look at a unique group of Americans.