Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Book Review: The Great Divorce, by Ilyon Woo

I could not put it down.

This book blew me away.

feminism noun

Click to hear the UK pronunciation of this wordClick to hear the US pronunciation of this word/ˈfem.ɪ.nɪ.zəm/ n [U]
the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state.


I never understood feminism. It is odd, I know, for a woman of my age who was born in the 1960s, to say this. I was spoon-fed the doctrines of feminism. But I never understood it. Until I read Shirley, written by Charlotte Bronte, you could say I had missed the point of the feminist movement. (If you have not read that book, you well should, especially if you are a feminist.) And now, The Great Divorce, by Ilyon Woo, has been added to the list of must-reads for all young women.


Today women have equal footing under the law. It was not so in the 1800s. At that time, women and children were considered property (yes, property!) of the head of the household. When a woman married she was considered to be "civilly dead," or essentially, her rights as an individual ceased to exist under the law. This meant her earning potential was minimal, her credit and reputation was dependent upon her husband's support, and she could only regain her civil status in three ways. The first, and most usual, was through the death of her husband. The second, and likely the second most common way, was if her husband was jailed. And lastly, in a very rare occurrence, if the wife was granted a divorce. This was extremely rare, and in New York State, where our story unfolds, the only grounds was for adultery. There was a partial divorce (divorce of bed and board) which could be awarded in certain circumstances, but that was also rare, and did not restore a woman to her full status in the eyes of the law.

The Great Divorce tells the story of a woman, Eunice Chapman, who in the early 1800s took on New York State, her husband, and the Shaker Community to gain custody of her three children. It is a true story, and it was pieced together by Ilyon Woo through extensive research. Woo delved into newspaper articles, personal diaries, Shaker records, and some Legislative papers from NYS government, but most had been lost in a fire.

Eunice Chapman had married her husband, James, when both were older than average for the times. She was 26 and he was 41 years old. He was a widower with a child, she was a beautiful, petite woman on the verge of spinsterhood, and her family was in a financial crisis. It was not a marriage made in heaven. They had three children in five years, but James liked to drink. As their homelife deteriorated, James was more and more in the taverns, and eventually left Eunice outright. Because he abandoned her, she had no legal recourse (it was not grounds for divorce) and she ended up losing everything. The book describes how she survived a winter with barely enough food for her children and no fuel with which to keep them warm. She was an outcast in her church because abandoned women "must have done something to deserve it" and the book describes the circumstances Eunice and her children lived in after James left.

While he was gone, James found the Shakers. The Shaker Community was known for taking in anyone who needed shelter, and by anyone's standards, they offered a great arrangement. If you wanted to become a Believer, you would renounce your worldly possessions, make a confession to the elders, and commit to their lifestyle, then you could live among the Shakers as part of their community. They worked hard, held themselves to extremely high standards, were perfectionists of sorts, and they were celibate. If you could live with their rules and their schedules you were provided with very nice accommodations, an excellent and regular diet of high protein meals and delicious foods, and warm clothing. You did not earn an income in dollars and cents, but you would want for nothing at all. James wanted to join.

Because James was married, the Shakers required him to take care of his wife and children before he could join. The Shakers wanted James to bring his wife and children back, to become Believers. Short of that, he would have to provide for them. If he could not do this, they would not accept him. Well, that was in theory. In practicality, he was a strong man who could work hard, and he was needed. Therefore, when Eunice could not buy into the Shaker philosophy of religion, the community allowed her to take her children and go. But, without a divorce she was not free, and she kept going to see James, and ask him for financial support. Eventually, James and a Shaker Brother, kidnapped the three children and left Eunice to her own devices.

This book recounts the true story of a diminutive woman who took on the world to recover her children when she had no legal rights, and women who were in her situation were, more often than not, seen as crazed, wild women who deserved the circumstances they found themselves in. It is a page-turner that someone should make into a movie, it is so very shocking.

Woo does an excellent job at telling all sides of the story. She pieces together the story of James and what led him to the Shakers. She tells of the Shakers, their lifestyle, their thought processes, and how they waged their side of the battle. Woo goes into the heart of a mother, and describes the lengths that Eunice went to, and the suffering she endured in her fight to regain custody. I read the 416 pages, barely taking time to sleep, ignoring all responsibilities, to read Eunice's story. I could not put it down. All sides were clever in their actions, Eunice was cunning. We often wonder what we can endure, how we could overcome in the face of great adversity. Woo shows us what one woman can do. And, throughout the entire book, you just are not sure how it will all resolve. The story is told in a very readable style, logically laid out, background is filled in just where it needs to be, and the characters are fully developed. No small task when everyone died in the 1800s.

I am not a feminist, I do not believe in divorce, this book should have no interest for me. I read it on the recommendation of one of my library patrons. This book moved me, it is on my short list of favorite books. I will recommend this book to everyone. It is just that good. My question is what will Ilyon Woo follow this book up with? I cannot wait to see what is next!

This is a 416-page book, released in August 2010, by Atlantic Monthly Press. It is a non-fiction work.

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11 comments:

bookdout said...

Hi
Just hopping by - this book sounds fascinating - have added it to my TBR list - thanks!

Shelleyrae @ book'd Out
www.bookdout.wordpress.com

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

I'm not at all familiar with this work, but it sounds utterly fascinating!

Susan (Reading World) said...

This book does sound interesting. Infuriating and interesting. I'll have to look for it when it comes out. There is an old historical fiction book by Janice Holt Giles called The Believers that deals with The Shakers and a woman trapped in the order because of her marriage. She is able to obtain one of the first legal divorces and escape. It's fiction and old-fashioned but deals with some of the same issues.

Aleetha said...

I think this is the first time I come here. :)

I have never read The Great Divorce.
I found enthusiasm in your review.:)
big hope I can find a way to read the book

I wonder what book are you reading after this?

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

This sounds good - thanks for posting about it.

RAnn said...

Another book for my tbr stack....

Kylie said...

Sounds interesting. I've added it to my TBR list! You can check out my Monday here

http://kyliesreads.blogspot.com/2011/01/its-monday-what-are-you-reading_31.html

heather said...

Sounds interesting. I'll check it out.

I Eat Words said...

This book sounds really good! I consider myself a feminist so I think it would be an interesting read and I usually don't like non-fiction.

Thanks for stopping by our site! :)

Emmily said...

This book is a nice example of what progress has been made during the last age towards womans rights and emancipation. It adds to the evidence that no-fault divorces are part of the progress.

Ed the California Divorce Attorney said...

Divorce books have always fascinated me, and this one you've just shared sounds like such an interesting one. Thank you so much for sharing it, I'll definitely try my best to check it out.

I just bookmarked this post on StumbleUpon, Delicious, Digg, Reddit and Google Bookmakrs. Hopefully, more people will be able to read this book review. Also, if you have the time, I would love it if you could read my "Divorce Books" article, which you can do so by visiting this link: http://neverfadingwood.blogspot.com/2011/01/book-review-great-divorce-by-ilyon-woo.html. Thank you!