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by Kimberley Heuston
Front Street Press, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Nov 30th 2002

The Shakeress

The Shakeress by Kimberley Heuston is a most engrossing and very educational account of the religious environment of 1830’s New England. This young adult novel presents a very realistic portrayal of a young girl’s life in an early 19th century New England Shaker community.

"In her head, Naomi screamed." These are the words that open Kimberley Heuston’s 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, Naomi’s elder brother, was badly burned in the fire, and is unable to work so the burden of support falls on Naomi’s 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 Naomi’s 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.

The 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 author’s 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 reader’s discomfort should be a point of learning to be reflected upon and discussion. This is my way of saying that Naomi’s 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 character’s 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 mystics.