Shakeress by Kimberley Heuston is a most engrossing and very educational
account of the religious environment of 1830s New England. This young adult
novel presents a very realistic portrayal of a young girls life in an early 19th
century New England Shaker community.
"In her head, Naomi screamed." These
are the words that open Kimberley Heustons The
Shakeress. Set in Vermont and New Hampshire during the years 1828-1835, it
describes the trials and tribulations of Naomi Hull. As the novel opens, Naomi
has a reason to feel like screaming. She is only 12-years old and has already witnesses
the death of her baby brother and both her parents when their home burned down.
Ben, Naomis elder brother, was badly burned in the fire, and is unable to work
so the burden of support falls on Naomis shoulders. The orphaned Hull children
(Ben, Naomi, Glory, and Eli) seek help from their only relatives and move in to
live with their Aunt Thankful who does not living up to her name. And so it is
that Aunt Thankful, displeased with four more mouths to feed, has decided to
send Naomi to work at in distant mill factory. The thought of being separated from
her siblings after all that they have been through is intolerably to Naomi. No
wonder she feels like screaming. With the assistance of Ben, Naomi sneaks the
younger children out of the house in the middle of the night and the foursome seek
refuse at the Shaker village that was located down the road from their parents
homestead. While Naomi and Glory, her 9-year old sister, must live apart from
their brothers, at least the family remains in close contact. The remainder of
the novel details Naomis life with the Shakers, her training there as an
herbalist/healer, her heart-breaking decision to leave her siblings and the Shaker
community, and finally, her new life as a herbal healer and make-shift doctor
for St. Johnsbury, a rural Vermont settlement.
Shakeress is more than a novel. It is a well written history of the
religious environment of the 1830s. It details the Shaker lifestyle and how
mainline protestant denominationalist viewed them. It also describes the early
missionary movement of Mormonism before the group moved out West. I am not a
scholar of either the Shaker or Mormonism and can honestly say I learned a lot
about both groups from reading this novel. Naomi is depicted as a true person
of her age. She is religious minded, passively obedient, and "bite your tongue"
respectful of adults. I applaud the authors portrayal of her. Too often, I
find that fictional historic characters are little more than modern people
dressed up in historic costumes. Their actions, words, and thoughts are truer
to today than the era the author is trying to depict. It makes for easier reading,
but it is not true to the historic reality. If a historic novel at times feels
corseted to the modern reader, but accurately reflects the reality of the era,
the readers discomfort should be a point of learning to be reflected upon and
discussion. This is my way of saying that Naomis life choices and dating style
may seem very archaic and unnatural to modern teen readers. If so, it should.
That was then, this is now. Another important aspect of this novel that is
worthy of discussion is the significant role that religion and religious
questing plays in Naomi and in other characters choices.
Kimberley Heuston is an English and History teacher at Waterford
Schools in Salt Lake City, UT. [She] was born in Provo, Utah and grew up in New York City. As a
child, her family frequently visited St. Johnsbury, VT which became the setting
for The Shakeress.
She is the author of Single
Parenting: Help for Latter-day Saint Families. She is currently lives in Salt Lake City with her four children. The Shakeress (2002) is her first novel.
I found The Shakeress to be thoroughly engrossing. While the book is
labeled Ages 12-up Adults should not pass
this book because it is labeled for children. It is a worthwhile read for
individuals of all ages. I highly recommend this book to
young people AND adults!
© 2002 Su Terry
Su Terry: Education:
B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from
Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral
Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from
New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual
Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the
United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at
Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested
in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area
of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian