“The Great Divorce is a superb book – masterfully written, deeply suspenseful, and filled with fascinating facts and insights. American history would be everyone’s favorite subject if more historians wrote like this. Woo is a writer to watch.”
—Debby Applegate, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
About The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce is a scandalous true tale involving a distraught mother, her errant husband, their missing children, and the Shakers—a utopian society that is now best known for making great furniture, but was something quite different in the formative years of American history.
Most people tend to imagine the Shakers as Margaret Atwood once did: a “kindly, melodious and harmless bunch.” It’s little wonder. The Shakers built thriving villages and produced exquisite furniture. They did not practice polygamy like the early Mormons, or free love like the Oneida Perfectionists. In fact, the Shakers did not have sex at all. Their celibacy was initially cause for persecution, but it ultimately defanged them. After all, it was said, how much harm could come from society that could not procreate?
The Shakers were–and remain–a model people in many regards. For over two hundred years, they have exerted much positive influence through their charity, good works, and spiritual imagination. The Shakers have also become icons of American culture, present everywhere, it seems– even at the Obama Inauguration, where their music was performed. Yet they were never perfect, and for some, the sacrifices their faith demanded were simply too much.
The Great Divorce is about one extraordinary instance of conflict between a man and woman divided over the Shaker faith—an initially private conflict that eventually spread to the sect, state and nation beyond during the turbulent early years of the nineteenth century. It is a true story, based on years of puzzling over yellowed newspapers, Shaker diaries, private letters, legal papers, and other manuscripts. It has been, for me, an obsession—more than a decade in the making. I hope you enjoy the book.