Austin Innes, Harry Littlebourne, and Amos Anger all come from very different backgrounds, and yet, their paths have all led them to the Shaker community at South Union, Kentucky. The United States is in turmoil and the Civil War erupts around this quiet religious community. Every day becomes a struggle for food, supplies, their health, and their very beliefs as the various troops and refugees travel past South Union, often taking advantage of the Shakers’ kindness. Can the community hold together through these trying times, or will the war take its toll even here?
Linda Stevens’ novel, Kindly Welcome, is a stunning work of historical fiction. Based on actual journals kept by Shakers during the Civil War, the book is an entrancing look into a lifestyle that is all by gone. The book revolves around three primary characters – Austin, Harry, and Amos – letting readers see various events from different perspectives as the characters’ ages and backgrounds are vastly different. The pacing of the book is slow, which is a fitting choice given the time period and lifestyle of the people involved. However, the novel is so well-crafted that the book doesn’t ever feel slow, and readers will find themselves drawn into the narrative with surprising ease. The main characters have fleshed out personalities, in part thanks to the time taken in the beginning portion of the novel dedicated to their backgrounds. The supporting cast varies in vibrancy, but always fit with their purpose in the novel.
The story itself focuses on the community as a whole, using the three main characters to give voice to the community’s concerns and interests. Events of the Civil War are often framed around a character’s trip to the nearby town through gossip they hear or papers they read. While South Union missed much of the horrors of war, the book is very clear about its effects on the residents and the disruption caused to their lives. The book includes a Forward, that gives some up-front history about the Shakers, and there is also a map to help orient readers around South Union.
Kindly Welcome is a beautiful story about love and human conviction and the research involved in making this novel is palpable in its structure. While readers of historical fiction and religious fiction are likely to be the primary audience of the book, I highly recommend that anyone interested in fiction in general give this book a try. The Shakers are a dying breed – at the time of writing this review there are only two Shakers still living in the United States – and this book is a wonderful window into a vanishing culture and one that holds its own among other highly rated Civil War era literature.
Interview with Linda Stevens
Q. You stated in the forward of your book that many of the characters are based around actual people. A notable exception are your primary cast – Austin Innes, Harry Littlebourne, and Amos Anger. How did you decide on these characters to frame your novel?
A. My years in the newspaper trade made my life considerably more difficult, from the very early days of researching Kindly Welcome. I wanted confirmations for everything, didn’t feel I could go to print with anything that wouldn’t stand up. And while the journals gave me an extraordinary window into the lives of the Shakers at South Union, there wasn’t enough there to extrapolate personalities I could use to paint with a broad brush. I didn’t feel I could take those liberties. Even worse, having had some actors’ training, the other monkey on my back was Stanislavsky: I had to know everything there was to know about my characters or I could only push them so far. The hollows would show. I couldn’t do without their B-copy, and to get what I needed I would have to create lives I could shape.
At first the trees got lost in the forest. The journals were so rich in possibilities that almost anyone could happen. Amos was the first to appear, not least because I needed an Everyman, someone who would grow through the Civil War and be overwhelmed by war’s contradictions, but who would still be shaped by it without being destroyed. Children’s minds have always fascinated me, and when Amos appeared he was the innocent I wanted. Austin came next, a mercurial creature of infinite intellect and charm and whose temperament turned on a dime – but I knew I couldn’t commit him to a single child. Enter: Harry, who was a child himself. I loved building Harry. It’s interesting, the affection readers have for Harry, but it doesn’t surprise me. Anyone who reads Kindly Welcome will see why.
Q. What was the inspiration for writing about Civil War era Shakers? Did you stumble upon the journals, or was your interest something that you’ve had for a long time?
A. The raw beginnings of Kindly Welcome were in organized chaos. In my newspaper days I took driving vacations, just picked a random spot on the map, got there, and drove around. One of those jaunts was to Maine, en route to Campobello. I’ve always been interested in religion, I knew about the Shakers, and when I passed by Sabbathday Lake I called in. There were a few more of them then: Frances Carr was still alive, and of course Arnold Hadd. As so often happens, I ended up in the library, and while there I picked up the trail of the Civil War journals. Back in the seventh grade I had had the best teacher I would ever have, the late J. Nelson Whitehead, and he had a passion for the Civil War. It was just one of a few of his passions that latched on to me. So I made notes of what I found and went home to New York, but I couldn’t ignore it. The combination of the journals, the War, and the fact that I had never in my life wanted to write a novel because real life is so much more interesting, were a perfect storm. My next driving extravaganza was naturally to Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of Western Kentucky University where the journals are housed, and when I started reading them I wanted to do something with them – something respectful, something right. The Shakers have had a bad time at the hands of novelists, but I couldn’t find a nonfiction route through to the heart of the story. The answer, for me, was to take the journals as a compelling structure anchored in fact, then create some characters I could trust to wander through them. It was only the beginning, but it was a start.
Q. Your book describes many challenges faced by the Shakers during the war – floods, thieves, pressure from the various armies to join up against their beliefs – not to mention the daily work required just to keep the community going. Were you part of such a community, what do you think would have given you the most difficulty?
A. I couldn’t have survived as a Shaker, not least because that life took endless patience, and patience is something I just don’t have. On the other hand, I was a teenager in the 60s, and that was a whole other era – in part because it was reasonably free of technology. We traveled in packs and were always together, always talking, always tuned in to each other, always trying to work things out. The elephant in the room was that our future involved some of us dying in Vietnam for no discernible reason. Especially later, as a Quaker kid at a Quaker college, I felt the enormity of that. So, In a way, we were in small communes under a certain threat, and I can understand the Believers’ commitment.
Q. With only two living Shaker members at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, what is your opinion on their decision to close the Shaker Covenant, in effect letting the Shakers die out?
A. Shaker doctrine inbuilt the impossible problem of celibacy, and when the end of the Civil War made the creation of more orphanages necessary there was an increasingly small number of waifs and strays coming into the communities. In earlier days such homeless children had sometimes decided to stay, thus adding to the Shaker population. On the other hand, as decades passed a likewise increasingly small group of people who didn’t care all that much about wealth to begin with were in possession of at least one valuable asset – the furniture, for which (sadly) they’re best known. In the last forty years or so the price of genuine Shaker furniture has skyrocketed. Although the reason for closing the covenant has naturally not been vouchsafed to the likes of me, leaving the covenant open created the possibility of a tontine – whereby a single person alleging to be a Shaker could end up presiding over the wind-up of the communal enterprise. More importantly, my guess is that there came a moment when the surviving Believers knew that the shared vision was dimming in a world where the eyes to see angels are few and far between. Could the Shakers have survived in the world of Me First? I’d like to think so, but common sense likely indicates the opposite. The modern world seems not to be encouraging the sort of spiritual souls who could become Believers.
Q. Was the switch from writing short form articles for magazines and editing books to writing a novel of your own an easy transition?
A. The gear-shift from newspaper writing to writing a novel was shuddery and threatened to stall out at any time. Non-fiction, to me, is so much more compelling than fiction, and it seemed sort of hypocritical to write a novel when I so seldom read them. But, as I said, I could extrapolate the natures of some of the real-life characters from the journals, but that wasn’t enough for me to do what I found myself wanting to do. The answer was to create characters who could wander through the landscape of those extraordinary writings.
Q. What would you say was the most difficult part of writing this novel?
A. The most difficult part of making Kindly Welcome, hands down, was the research, although I enjoyed pretty much all of it. Again, hamstrung by a history in newspapers, I had a horror of getting things wrong. I wanted to stay as close to the journals as I could, but if my fictional characters wandered outside of them every step they took had to be based on verifiable fact. So while the writing of the first draft (and Kindly Welcome was at least a hundred pages longer then) took only about three months, doing the research went on for nearly three years. For instance, I needed army regiments for two of my characters, which meant going through the Confederate and Federal records looking for authentic regiments that were in specific places at specific times and were involved in specific battles. Or there was the couple of days I spent in Massachusetts, just to investigate whether the term “Nantucket sleigh ride” was in use circa 1844. It arguably wasn’t, and while I was desperate to use it I couldn’t. The extent of my research was probably ridiculous, but I couldn’t write without it. So, while the reader may read a certain passage and think, “Well, that didn’t happen,” the chances are excellent that it did, whether the sequence comes from the journals themselves or was something I unearthed somewhere.
Q. Do you have another writing project in the works?
A. The question I get most from readers is: “Then what? What happened to them?” Thanks to my Stanislavsky complex I know exactly what happened to the characters I created myself, but I’m not sure anyone else needs to know. The real-life characters are in the history books. Will there be a sequel? I don’t know. As for a different kind of book, time fascinates me – what constitutes the passing of a life and how time is perceived. Amnesia is a wonder to me. Perhaps that’s what’s next.
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