Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Dear America: Like the Willow Tree- the Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Portland, Maine 1918 by Lois Lowry

Lydia and her older brother, Daniel, live with their parents on a small farm in Maine. But even though her family isn't involved in fighting the Great War in Europe, its effects, specifically the Spanish Influenza, makes a great change in her life when it wipes out her parents and her baby sister, Lucy. They are taken in by their aunt and uncle, but a lack of food, room and money lead her relatives to send her and Daniel to live with the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake.

Learning to live with the Shakers takes a lot of adjustments for both Lydia and Daniel. They must live apart, as the society is segregated, women living together in one building and men in another, and they are forbidden to have any kind of relations or affection for each other beyond that of family, as they live without sex or romance. But while Lydia takes a long time to settle into the community, it is much harder for the older Daniel, with them allowed no personal property or possessions and everything owned communally.

In fact, it gets so bad for Daniel that he runs away and takes refuge in the nearby town. But unlike at the Shaker community, he is not given food or shelter, and so while he can earn some money by working for the local blacksmith, his position is extremely precarious and he starves more often than not, and although Lydia misses him terribly and is worried for him, as she grows to love and adapt to the Shaker way of life, she begins to feel that Sabbathday Lake is a place where she truly belongs. But will her brother ever return to the Shakers, and can he adapt to their life, or will be forever be apart from his sister and the life she has made with the Shakers?

Lydia must learn to take life as it comes, and even then, she will be asked to make a choice when she turns twenty-one, live with the Shakers forever, signing their covenant and living apart, or rejoin the outside world and live a life like other people and leave those she has come to love among the Shakers. What choice will she make?

Most people don't know it, but the Shakers were responsible for many items that are still in use today, like apple peelers and furniture designs that were a great improvement on what people already had. They also produced medicines that were loads better than any patent medicines in use back then. However, by not marrying or having children, and only taking in children that were surrendered to them by families, the Shakers laid the seeds of their own eventual dissolution, as there were too few Shakers to carry on their way of life and they had no children of their own to pass on their faith and beliefs to.

So while Shakers still exist today, they are nearly dead as a sect, and have become little more than quaint curiosities of a former time. To the point at which today there are only three Shakers left, or maybe less, as that was 2 years ago. And the community of Sabbathday Lake is the last surviving one, which will be conserved by Maine as long as there are Shakers left to live there. This book gives us a look at the Shakers when they were still a vibrant sect, not at the peak of their numbers, but not long into their decline, either, through a fictional character, who like many of the children that the Shakers took in and raised and educated, eventually left for a life in the outside world.

Like all books in the "Dear America" series, this book is told in Diary form, as Lydia writes down her impressions of life and the things she has learned and experienced that day. Unlike most personal possessions, her diary is not taken away from her when she moves into the Shaker community, and she is allowed to keep a personal journal, like some other Shakers did.

This book is a fascinating look at a long-passed way of life that manages to be engaging and entertaining as well as informative and interesting. The struggles and conflicts of Shaker life are well-depicted as well as the reasons that their sect declined. It opens up a section of life and history that many people will find attractive and strange, but in a good way. Highly recommended book and series.

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