13 April, 2013

Book Review: The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce - Ilyon Woo
From Goodreads: Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is the dramatic, richly textured story of one of nineteenth-century America’s most infamous divorce cases, in which a young mother single-handedly challenged her country’s notions of women’s rights, family, and marriage itself.
In 1814, Eunice Chapman came home to discover that her three children had been carried off by her estranged husband. He had taken them, she learned, to live among a celibate, religious people known as the Shakers. Defying all expectations, this famously petite and lovely woman mounted an an epic campaign against her husband, the Shakers, and the law. In its confrontation of some of the nation’s most fundamental debates—religious freedom, feminine virtue, the sanctity of marriage—her case struck a nerve with an uncertain new republic. And its culmination—in a stunning legislative decision and a terrifying mob attack— sent shockwaves through the Shaker community and the nation beyond.
With a novelist’s eye and a historian’s perspective, Woo delivers the first full account of Eunice Chapman’s remarkable struggle. A moving story about the power of a mother’s love, The Great Divorce is also a memorable portrait of a rousing challenge to the values of a young nation.

What I thought: In the early 1800's, Eunice Chapman was just like any other woman - property of her husband, dependent on him for support and access to her children. On the day she returned home and found her husband had taken their three children and gone to live with a religious group known as the Shakers, she decided to fight back.
Over 5 years Eunice petitioned legislators (at the time the only way a woman could get a divorce was to prove adultery or have it passed into law), wrote books and harassed the Shakers all with the single minded objective of getting her children back.
Woo does not make Chapman out to be a saint. By all accounts, Eunice was not above using whatever tactics she thought would work for her in her fight against the Shakers. However, at that point in time, there were not a lot of options available to women who chose not to follow their husbands and were therefore seen by the law as "civilly dead." This means she was unable to own property, testify against her husband or lay claim to their children.
Woo tells the tale of an amazing feminist, who fought for her children and never gave up. A highly recommended read.

Challenges: 13 in '13 Challenge