, September 29, 2015
(view all comments by Rainbow Explorer)
A highly unrealistic and insensitive book about an 11 year old girl who abruptly loses both of her parents, her baby sister, her home, her urban lifestyle, her religion, her school, and all of her support network (e.g., friends, classmates, neighbors, teachers, as well as, all of her relatives, apart from her older brother whom she is permanently forbidden to speak to or interact with, despite living in the same setting and attending the same school and church with him). Everything about this book screams out just how ignorant the author is both regarding the mourning processes of children, along with what it is genuinely like to live within a strict, controlling, fundamentalist religious sect/cult. Having been raised inside of one and having known hundreds of other children who did similarly (along with becoming child orphans), I find the author's romantization of this Shaker community to be appalling.
Like most isolationist, radical cults/sects (such as the Mennonites, Quakers, Amish, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, etc.), the Shakers presume their way of life to be inherently superior to that of every other group on the planet. This is why they isolate themselves and their children from as much contact with others as is possible, as they don't want any "contamination" in thinking or actions from the "outside world" (mental/cognitive rigidity always results in the formation of these types of cult groups). They displayed their arrogance by forcing their value system onto the innocent children whose life circumstances left them without parents. There's nothing loving or kind about forcing one's value system down the throats of others, including children, especially when you know those individuals have their own previously established thoughts, beliefs, belongings, and rituals they value.
Stealing the few belongings that an orphaned child may have is theft, plain and simple. If one intends to place them into safe keeping until the child reaches adulthood and can preserve that/those valuable(s) from that point forward, then that information should have been provided to the child at the time the object(s) were taken. Deliberately forcing the child to surrender her own possessions into the collective "pot" is a vicious thing to do. In essence, they told her that her past life was trash and irrelevant (no longer hers to treasure) and only her present and future life experiences mattered now.
That level of disrespect for her family of origin, including prohibiting her from interacting with her brother - her sole remaining family member - is about as psychologically cruel and inhumane an act as they could have engaged in. They stripped Lydia of every single part of her identity, attempting to nullify everything she'd ever known or loved. There's no kindness in that action, nor in expecting her to perpetually show no emotions apart from solemnity, contentment, gratitude, and satisfaction.
There are useful, beneficial, and healthy reasons that humans were provided with the full range of human emotions, including grief, anger, and dislike. If all human emotions were not needed or beneficial to human survival, they would not exist. The craziness of attempting to force imperfect humans (especially children who have no control or say over where they are living) to live, on earth, as though they were perfect beings living in "heaven on earth", is to live in a perpetual state of ongoing denial of reality. Perfectionism - including the Shaker's version of it - is a guaranteed path to mental illness, as has been researched and documented thoroughly by mental health professionals, all over the world.
Eventually, that denial of earthly realities led to the sect's demise which is a genuine blessing, from my perspective. Any commune that denies the importance and inherent value of both sexuality and procreation is a group that is setting itself up to die from the start. Since its cult leader appears to have been a severely mentally ill woman, it's not surprising that she didn't anticipate this ending, from the start.
Like every other fundamentalist, religious group in history, the Shakers were obviously filled with rampant hypocrisy. They demanded of their children and themselves to live "plain and simple lives", all while they are making enormous sums of money off of creating elaborate, decorative, and expensive treasures for others to buy (not a "heavenly action", by anyone's definition). While their own clothes were faded rags, they created designer-ware items for the wealthiest families in the nation. They had to care for their own hair with basic combs, while spending countless hours creating horsehair brushes to be sold for the hair care of wealthy others. This kind of double standard is found within every similar type of isolationist sect/cult.
The worst part about books like this, which romanticize the lives of orphans who became slaves to whatever adults took/take them in, is that it never explicitly states to child readers that these orphans are, in fact, slaves - unpaid laborers which have to do whatever their "masters" (elders) tell them to do, including never date, marry, nor discuss/role-play any plans for a future career/life outside of the commune. These Shaker children were explicitly taught that loyalty to or love of a specific individual or biological/marital family is essentially evil/ungodly - that the only way to be "holy" is to never marry, date, give birth to children, or live apart from the commune. That's NOT a successful way for all to live as human beings on planet earth (which is where both they and we are living, not in heaven)!
There is no freedom of thought nor valuing of personal choices and decisions, within such a commune setting. All are expected to think, act, and behave as a single entity which is impossible and inhumane. The profound disrespect the author displayed in trying to convince the reader that any child or human of any age could and can completely resolve the HUGE range of losses that Lydia underwent, all within a span of roughly seven months, is revolting.
It's not possible, realistic, nor reasonable to try to shove any character through such a brief period of mourning, because it's entirely outside the realm of reality and I believe the author is old enough to know better! I would strongly recommend that she refrain from writing any further books about topics she clearly knows nothing about on a personal level. Her ignorance on topics that are both meaningful and crucial for child readers to learn about is profound.
I'm only giving this book 2 stars, rather than 1 (which it really deserves in most ways), because she did a reasonably good job of researching what the Shaker lifestyle was like. However, none of her research involved looking at such groups from a CHILD'S perspective, and most especially, a child ORPHAN'S perspective. That portion of the book felt more like what a Martian's (an unreal being's) experience would be like, living within a Shaker community.