Kindly Welcome: A Novel of the Shakers in the Civil War
In the earlier days of the United States, a large number of religious sects sprang up—many of them moving into what was then wilderness, in order to practice their particular faith. One of these was the Shakers, and, while they are not as well known as some others, they were mentioned often enough in my early history classes that they captured my imagination completely. When I found a book about Shakers during the Civil War, I knew I had to read it, and I was certainly not disappointed.
Austin Innes is a sailor whose life is essentially what we might imagine that of a nineteenth-century sailor-to-be. When we first meet him, he is stumbling out of a young woman’s bed (one of many he has been in during his life) after a drunken night, doing his best to get to his ship before it leaves the harbor. He isn’t quite in time, though; fortunately, he knows where it is bound and sets about making his way to New Orleans. On the way, he runs into some fellow travelers who offer him passage on their boat. These travelers are Shakers, and though he does not know it yet, Austin will soon find himself enchanted by their faith and their gentle lives.
Years later and miles to the north, Harry Littlebourne has just lost his father. For a time, he runs their farm himself, but when a traveling family needs a place to settle, he offers them the farm. His life, Austin’s, and that of a young boy named Amos, will soon be intertwined with the Shakers as, together, they face the American Civil War. The faith and loyalties of many in the community will be tested, and the question arises: When a nation turns upon itself, what can come out unscathed?
Even with the backdrop of one of the most striking American conflicts, this is not a war book. It is a book about Shakers, and Linda Stevens does a magnificent job of making that clear. The pace of the book is sedate, but never dull, and every page is filled with tender affection for everything from the Shakers to their land. The only bitterness in the book is for the institution of slavery—something anyone can agree deserves no sympathy.
What I found most amazing about the book, though, was that it is based on actual events. The author has used the journals of two Shakers to shape the story, and while some extrapolation has been done (perhaps just enough for this to qualify as fiction), the book itself is solidly based in history. It was well worth the read, and one of these days I know I’ll gladly revisit it.
Nakasero Hill Press