Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Future Projects I: Novel

I've always been sort of interested in the Shakers. Not enough to want to join, but enough to be concerned that it likely won't be too long before there simply aren't any left. There were a number of Shaker communities in New England; for the most part, they are now museums. I think the last remaining Shaker community is the wonderfully named Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine. Years ago, the community (then down to six) was profiled on some morning "news" show (you know, the ones that purport to be news but are really more concerned with celebrity diets and making celebrities of the anchors themselves). The report inspired the idea for a novel called The Last Shaker.

Essentially, a troubled woman (recently date-raped with a history of drug and physical abuse) is on the run and passes out at night at the outskirts of a Shaker community, where she is found in the morning by one of the three remaining elders. She is taken in, healed, and invited to stay. With her strength returned, she becomes a caretaker of the others. Though the Shaker lifestyle is not something she desires or appreciates, she quickly becomes emotionally attached to the three elders. Soon, however, it becomes obvious that her rapist made her pregnant.

Again, she becomes distraught and depressed, yet the elders help her to see a positive side to her situation. Though the Shakers are celibate, they believe in life, and it is important to them that she be able to make this new life a useful one. As the pregnancy advances, one of the Shakers becomes ill and dies quickly. Another becomes infirm. The woman fears being left alone to birth and care for the child and considers leaving the community. But in a moment of crisis for the infirm Shaker, she realizes she must stay. The infirm Shaker dies, leaving one Shaker and one pregnant woman.

The woman considers becoming a Shaker but feels she is too impure to ever fully embrace the ascetic lifestyle. The last remaining Shaker midwifes the birth of the woman's child, a boy, then falls ill. The woman cares for both the elder and the newborn at the same time, finding similarities both in their dependence and in the fact that despite their physical frailties, there is much each can still teach her. As the elder dies, the woman tells her that she will raise her child Shaker. Her child, therefore, becomes the last Shaker.

So this is a story I began writing years ago and never returned to; one reason is that I found it difficult to research specific Shaker rituals, particularly some sort of conversion ceremony. I bought a very beautiful book called God Among the Shakers, but it still left me with unanswered questions. I believe I am now more capable of undertaking the research needed, if I can allocate sufficient time. Given my other projects, I'm not sure it will happen in the next year or two.

However, an item in the news today has re-piqued my interest in the project:

Shaker child returns to celebrate 90th birthday

By Clare Trapasso Associated Press Writer / July 29, 2008

CANTERBURY, N.H.—Eleven-year-old Alberta Kirkpatrick didn't believe she would ever be loved when she arrived in New Hampshire almost 80 years ago.

Her mother was dead. Her father drank. Her three siblings had scattered. She had threatened to kill herself if she wasn't removed from an abusive foster family.

Kirkpatrick found a home as the last child officially raised by the Canterbury Shakers -- then a dwindling, celibate community. And this month Kirkpatrick returned to the village, now a museum, to celebrate her 90th birthday.

"It's like going home to me," said Kirkpatrick, who drove up with a friend from her Warren, Pa. home.

The village has changed since Kirkpatrick ran through its fields picking asparagus from the garden and sledding over its hills. After the last Canterbury Shaker, Sister Ethel Hudson, died in 1992, the once religious village was turned into a museum.

Twenty-nine restored and reconstructed buildings, including the one where Kirkpatrick lived, sit on almost 700 lush acres.

Groups of tourists file through the carpenter's shop, where the Shakers printed mail order seed packets. They participate in cooking demonstrations, like how to make lavender ice cream. And they examine the simple craftsmanship of Shaker furniture, built for efficiency, which can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kirkpatrick, a sharp woman with blazing blue eyes, is one of the last people who remembers it as it really was.

Officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, the Shakers began in England in 1747. Because of their wild dancing during worship, they were called Shaking Quakers and then simply Shakers, according to Tom Johnson, curator of the Canterbury Shaker Museum.

They left England and formed societies stretching from New England to Kentucky where they practiced pacifism, equality of the sexes and celibacy. Men and women performed separate jobs and even used separate staircases.

They become known for their business acumen, craftsmanship and innovations, including the clothespin and circular saw.

In the mid-19th century, they peaked, with more than 6,000 U.S. members, including about 300 in Canterbury. More than 100 buildings, including an infirmary, stood on about 3,000 acres.

But after the Civil War, Shakers had trouble attracting converts, Johnson said. Another source of membership, children in need of homes, slowly dwindled as society developed alternatives.

Villages began closing. In 1968, Canterbury decided to stop taking in converts. Today, the four Shakers left in the world live at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine.

Kirkpatrick said the Shakers never pressed their religion on her or the eight other girls she was raised with in the village.

The girls attended the Shaker school and learned to sew, knit and embroider. In their spare time, they performed small tasks like washing pots and pans or helping with the laundry.

In seven years, Kirkpatrick was never hungry or punished.

"They made a living through the Depression for all of us," she said. "I'm grateful for the education I got there."

When Kirkpatrick was 18, her aunt and cousins persuaded her to leave.

"They were telling me about boyfriends and going to the movies," Kirkpatrick said. "They said they could get a job for me at Sears, Roebuck."

Sister Marguerite Frost, the woman who became her surrogate mother, told her to go.

"She said there's nothing here but the sisters that are getting older," Kirkpatrick remembered. "She said that's no life for a young person."

Kirkpatrick left. She married and had a daughter. Kirkpatrick remarried when she was 50 and is now a great-grandmother. Her second husband died in 1983.

Kirkpatrick has played a part in helping to guide the museum staff in recreating the village.

"She's a wonderful primary source of information for us," said museum director Funi Burdick. "She puts a family story into the Shaker community."

The museum held Kirkpatrick's birthday party on July 13. Kirkpatrick told townspeople about her childhood and was presented with a cake.

"It was marvelous, it was marvelous," Kirkpatrick said. "When I was little, I wasn't wanted at all. Now that I'm older I get this adulation. I can't see that I'm that spectacular of a person, but I certainly loved it all."


Mel said...

There are lots of books out there on the Shakers; I too, find them very interesting. There's also an interesting book called A History of Celibacy.' Have you tried contacting the remaining three or four Shakers at Sabbathday Lake? Interviews w/ them might help flesh out your novel. Sounds like it would be an interesting read. Good luck.

Jason M. Rubin said...

Thanks for the comment, mel. Honestly, I think I would find it intimidating to interview the last (real) remaining Shakers. I once wrote to Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata, who had recorded a disc of Shaker hymns with the Sabbathday Lake folks, and I told him about my project and asked his advice. He basically told me to leave them alone. Oh well.

mel said...

Odd that he'd say that. Did he elaborate? Have you looked at their website? Lots of info there.

mel said...

Oops, I meant to include the path: http://www.shaker.lib.me.us/about.html

Jason M. Rubin said...

Visited Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires today, and got reinspired.