Ilyon Woo: The Great Divorce

November 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0802119469 – Hardcover – Atlantic Monthly Press (ebook versions available $9.99)

Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers and Her Times is an absolutely terrific work of historical narrative.  The book tells the story of Eunice Chapman, whose husband left her, taking their children, to join the Shaker community near Albany, New York in 1814.

At that time, women had virtually no rights in society.  Upon being married, they literally lost their identities, which were subsumed completely into the legal identity of their husbands.  So when Eunice’s husband joined the Shakers, a radical Christian sect that espoused celibacy, communal living and the literal separation of the sexes (ironically giving women a much greater role in their communities than was common in the larger society), she had no legal way to gain custody or even visitation with her children.  Rather than give up her children to her husband and a religious community with whom she did not agree, she fought her husband and the Shakers for the return of her children.

Ilyon Woo tells the story of Eunice Chapman’s years of struggle to regain her children, which is amazing in itself, given the barriers she had to overcome, not to mention the difficulties of time and distance, which made everything slower and more complicated to resolve.  But of course this is also a social history of an era many of us know very little about.  It’s a period when women are only just beginning to exercise social power, 30 after the establishment of the United States as a country, 100 years before women win the right to vote.

Through the lens of Eunice Chapman and her heroic struggle, Woo is able to bring this period vividly forward.  We learn a great deal about the Shakers, their history, many of the individuals who made the Shaker sect at least temporarily a very successful, though highly controversial religious and social community, and the nature of their daily lives.  And her portrayal of the city of Albany and the New York state legislature is absolutely terrific.  Woo succeeds in highlighting individual human beings living their lives within the social and historical sweep of their times.  There’s a great deal of research here that has been transformed by imagination and her terrific sense of story into a vivid portrayal of an otherwise obscure piece of social history.

This is Ilyon’s first book.  I wanted to talk to her about what got her interested in this subject, and learn more about the kind of research she did to be able to tell this story.  And also to learn more about how she feels about this period and the people she wrote about.  It’s an amazing story that can and should help anyone faced with any challenge find it easier to rise to the occasion, especially since this is a story with a true happy ending.

Ilyon Woo’s website is here.  The site features a video about the book, links to more information about the Shakers, and a really interesting tab about the dramatic readings from the book that the author has organized.  Here is my favorite quote about the book: “By delving so deeply into the sources, Woo brings the past to life in all its wonderful strangeness, complexity, and verve.  This is what history is all about.” —Nathaniel Philbrick, winner of the National Book Award.