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The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times Paperback – August 16, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

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. --Donna Chavez --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (August 16, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080214537X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802145376
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 4.2 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,240,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ilyon Woo holds a B.A. in the Humanities from Yale College and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. She lives in New York City. She has spoken about THE GREAT DIVORCE, her first book, on NPR's Diane Rehm Show and NPR's "All Things Considered" and has published a related essay in the Wall Street Journal.

www.ilyonwoo.com

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Allison on August 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Once in awhile, a book comes along and changes your perspective of what one person can accomplish despite the rules. This is a testament to Eunice Chapman's extraordinary commitment, endurance, and faith. I applaud Ilyon Woo's extensive research and meticulous detail to capture the story from multiple points of view. She managed to capture each main character in their true light as both aggressor and victim. It is a brilliant story and one that every book club group should read.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am a history junkie. I especially enjoy works that give a rich, full flavor of a time as well as presenting different views of the same event. This book delivers nicely on both counts, relating the atmosphere in New York State and the country in the early 1800's, especially in regards to religion, the condition of women, and women's rights. The centerpiece is one womans battle to regain her children, who had been spirited away by her husband. At a time when a woman had little recourse against those that harmed or mistreated her, Eunice Chapmans battle was an amazing one. What could have been a small family drama escalated into a war that caught up politicians, lawyers, the Shaker religion and such luminaries as Martin Van Buren and Thomas Jefferson.

All that aside, the author makes the book highly accessible to the reader, writing in an engaging style that makes this a page-turning historical mystery. It is just plain great storytelling!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By H. D. Macadam on August 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I love a well written book and the language here is like a fine meal, something to savor. Ilyon Woo has woven ample research into the fabric of this story, so we can see our country in the early 19th century and see the people. This is a tale for parents to read and marvel at the commitment of one mother to her children, and for young women to read and marvel at how true feminism is about so much more than current rhetoric minimalizes. I do not doubt that THE GREAT DIVORCE will soon be a part of women studies curriculums at our finest colleges. Every women should read this remarkable tale to remind ourselves how far we've come, and that real women make waves and then ride them ashore, they don't drown in them.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Ross on September 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Divorce. It is the well written, and clearly well-researched and even handed, story of a very determined and intelligent young woman who had the misfortune to make a poor choice in marriage at a time when women had few rights before marriage, and even fewer after. Her dysfunctional and alcoholic husband eventually became a Shaker, and forcibly took their children to a Shaker community, which compounded her difficulties. The story of her getting the first legislative divorce in New York state, and recovering her children, and the aftermath of it all, is quite amazing, with numerous twists and turns. Much historical background on the Shakers is set forth, which I also found of considerable interest. I would highly recommend this fine book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Meena on August 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I am not a frequenter of non-fiction, but after reading this this book, I am willing to change. Ilyon Woo's well-crafted writing reads like a novel, totally engaging and beautifully detailed, and the fact that this is a true story makes it all the sweeter. I learned so much about history, politics, and women's rights (or lack thereof) in reading this amazing story. There is a great depth of humanity in the portrayal of the main protagonists, their motivations, hopes and weaknesses. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good book down to the rich details that make the story come alive.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By allegra wechsler lowitt on September 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Woo does a wonderful job combining story telling with history. I read this book in three days, and stayed up later than I should have each night in order to find out what happened next. In addition to the gripping story of a woman's fight to win back her children from her estranged husband and the Shakers, the book skillfully provides a fascinating portrail of life in the 1800s and the options (or lack there of) open to women at this time.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By DaiSil Kim-Gibson on September 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Great Divorce will stay in your mind long after you put it down. It is a story about a nineteenth-century American woman taking on law and religion in order to rescue her children. Ilyon Woo reveals a hidden history with meticulous research, a fair mind that sees all sides, and a heart that knows a mother's love-- in fine writing, full of vivid and visual detail. I see this remarkable story filling the screens of the movie theaters across the country. But first, read the book and experience an obscure story turning into a triumph in the hands of an astounding writer.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Sometime Critic on October 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Of how many impeccably researched histories can it be said, "I couldn't put it down!" Illyon Woo has meticulously pieced together mostly original sources into a book that has the sweep and pace of great drama. She does not invent, but has sources for details right down to the weather and the condition of roads. (I know this because I read both her Sources and Acknowlegdments sections, so curious was I about her methods and so reluctant was I to let go of this book!) As for the story told, it is an extraordinary commentary on the roles and rights of women, the struggle of a new nation to create and then bend and amend its laws, the power of marketing (yes, even in the early 19th century), and the peculiar nature of Shaker culture. Woo says in her Epilogue that the sui generis nature of Eunice Chapman's story has made it a footnote to legal history. But Woo rescues the footnote, showing how both the Shakers and Eunice's struggle against them were peculiarly American, and can tell us much about how we - American women and men of all religious stripes - live today. And why. Whatever Woo writes next, I'm there.
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