Cover image for The great divorce : a nineteenth-century mother's extraordinary fight against her husband, the Shakers, and her times
Title:
The great divorce : a nineteenth-century mother's extraordinary fight against her husband, the Shakers, and her times
Author:
Woo, Ilyon.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2010]

©2010
Physical Description:
404 pages ; 22 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780802119469
Format :
Book

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HQ1418 .W66 2010 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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HQ1418 .W66 2010 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
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Summary

Summary

Ilyon Woo's The Great Divorce is the dramatic, richly textured story of one of nineteenth-century America's most infamous divorce cases, in which a young mother single-handedly challenged her country's notions of women's rights, family, and marriage itself.
In 1814, Eunice Chapman came home to discover that her three children had been carried off by her estranged husband. He had taken them, she learned, to live among a celibate, religious people known as the Shakers. Defying all expectations, this famously petite and lovely woman mounted an an epic campaign against her husband, the Shakers, and the law. In its confrontation of some of the nation's most fundamental debates--religious freedom, feminine virtue, the sanctity of marriage--her case struck a nerve with an uncertain new republic. And its culmination--in a stunning legislative decision and a terrifying mob attack-- sent shockwaves through the Shaker community and the nation beyond.
With a novelist's eye and a historian's perspective, Woo delivers the first full account of Eunice Chapman's remarkable struggle. A moving story about the power of a mother's love, The Great Divorce is also a memorable portrait of a rousing challenge to the values of a young nation.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Back in the 1800s, when a woman married, she ceased to exist. She had no legal rights zero. Thus the story of a woman like Eunice Hawley Chapman has real potential for drama. Indeed, this uppity woman's five-year struggle to gain custody of her children at any cost is most deservedly the stuff of an HBO miniseries. When Eunice's abusive, alcoholic husband, James Chapman, decided to clean up his life by joining a reclusive religious group called the Shakers, they asked that he face up to his marital and paternal responsibilities. His membership rested upon convincing Eunice to join him. She declined. So he sold all his worldly possessions, left Eunice with little but the clothes on her back, and abducted their three children to live with him inside the Shaker compound. While the U.S. was engaged in the War of 1812, Eunice launched a personal war on both governmental and religious authority. Alas much of the empathy we might feel for this dirt-poor mother and her quest gets lost amidst Woo's ponderous, thesis-like approach.--Chavez, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Known today for their elegant hand-hewn furniture, in the early 19th century the Shakers were a radical religious sect whose members renounced sexuality, property, and family to join a Christian utopian community. And if a father joined the Shakers with his children, as James Chapman did in 1814 in upstate New York, his estranged wife had neither parental rights nor legal recourse. In his smoothly narrative and revealing debut, Woo objectively deciphers this segregated society that, despite its stance in the Chapman case, believed in gender equality and was led by its own "Mother Lucy." Eunice Chapman successfully took her case against the Shakers and her husband to the New York legislature, where she obtained a divorce and regained legal custody of her three children, forcibly taking them back in 1818. Full of information about women's lives and status at the time, the book makes the case that Eunice's charisma and obsessive determination helped her overcome the usual rejection of women in the public sphere. Both Eunice's struggle and the Shakers' story fascinate equally while dispelling romanticized myths of utopian societies in the tumultuous postrevolutionary period. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Seductive and willful, Eunice Chapman, a woman small only in stature, is the focal point of Woo's engaging debut historical study of one 19th-century upstate New York woman's fight for her children. Eunice married "old, disagreeable, and repulsive" James Chapman for economic survival and, through the legal doctrine of coverture, becomes civilly, and legally, dead. James, an alcoholic abuser, left Eunice in the fall of 1811 and found refuge among the Shakers, taking the children with him. Today, Shakers are remembered for their simple lifestyle and handiwork, but they were a radical, religious sect "that often swooped in on disconsolate spiritual seekers offering themselves up to hungry souls eager to rebound from their broken faiths." The life of a Shaker was about falling in line, and Eunice-when she sought out her family in the Shaker community-would have no part of any of it. Woo takes readers through Eunice's custody battle, which shook New York State, and the utopian Shaker world and larger society. Eunice obtained a divorce and regained legal custody of her three children in 1818. Verdict Neglected history comes alive in this meticulously researched and compelling story of one tenacious woman. Strongly recommended to all interested readers.-Nancy Richey, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.