Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shaker Village

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Vintage Books, Jun 1, 1999 - Biography & Autobiography - 227 pages
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In Simple Gifts, June Sprigg tells the story of one of America's last Shaker communities--Canterbury Shaker Village, in Canterbury, New Hampshire--during its twilight years, and of its seven remarkable "survivor" women, who were among the last representatives of our longest-lived and best-known communal utopian society. As a college student Sprigg spent a summer among them, and here she gracefully interweaves the narrative of their lives with the broader history of Shakers in America as she shows us how her experiences there affected her own life and opened the door to her creativity.

Gleaning information from old records and journals that she pored over that summer and later, Sprigg brings to life the generations of Canterbury Shakers from the eighteenth century to the present--their customs, their architecture, their spirituality. She also explores the social and cultural forces and the internal imperatives and tensions that caused membership to decrease, all of which, by 1972, brought the community to crisis.

Chronicling the daily life of the village as she found it, Sprigg uncovers the affirming energies of the Shakers--the prominence of mutual love and respect, the devoted tradition of mothering surrogate children, and, above all, the surviving women's spirited eccentricities. She reveals the Shakers as individuals--their personal histories, their wildly different beginnings, what they gave up to join the Shaker community, and, more important, what they gained.

Through her lively text and drawings and her intimate connection with the community, Sprigg brings us close to its people with a book that both enlightens and inspires.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Dad's VNA nurse just mentionned an interest in the Shakers and that Dad had mentionned how lucky we were to have the wonderful experience of living next door to the Canterbury Shaker Village, starting in 1957.
I suggested, as I have more times than I can count, reading this book to give a flavor of the life of the last of the Shakers in Canterbury, of the women I was so, so, lucky to know and love. As well as suggesting Simple Gifts as a way of explaining what I grew up with, I have also given this book to several much younger (sometimes still teenaged) friends over the years because of its discussion of coming of age, and the influences of life experience.
Before it went to press, June asked me to read the galley proofs; to comment, correct, etc. I remember sitting at my kitchen table, at one moment laughing uproariously, minutes later bursting into tears. It was all so vivid to me - depicted as I also remembered it. (Yes, there were a few corrections. She mentionned going by the gazebo in Canterbury Center. But it was not yet built at that time, so removed from the final edition. That type of thing.) But the spirit, the essence of what that life was about was beautifully captured, and sometimes I was surprised to realize that I was in my kitchen, not hanging out in the Village, and that all of the Sisters had been gone for already quite a few years.
It is not the life of the "classic" Shakers. It is the life of these wonderful, and very real, people in their chosen place, and in the mid 20th century - a very different world from the mid 19th, or the time of Ann Lee. It is also, very much a book about the love and sharing we all have to give to each other - the deep influences of older women to a young woman. The essence of commuinity.
Perhaps this isn't a terribly scholarly book. I have neither the credentials nor any interest in judging that. But it IS a vivid depection of a time and place now gone. (The Village neither feels, nor entirely looks the same.) And it is a beautiful description of coming of age.
Teesa C. Wyman, Canterbury, NH
 

About the author (1999)

June Sprigg is a graduate of Lafayette College and the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. From 1977 to 1982 and 1986 to 1994 she was Curator of Collections at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She has guest-curated major exhibitions of Shaker design at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Sezon Museum of Art in Tokyo. She is a freelance writer and adjunct instructor of history at Berkshire Community College. Her many publications include By Shaker Hands (1975), Domestick Beings (1984), Inner Light: The Shaker Legacy (1985), and Shaker Built (1994). She lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.


From the Hardcover edition.

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