The Gift of Sarah Barker

by Jane Yolen

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The Gift of Sarah Barker, unlike the fantasy fiction for which Yolen is best known, is an absorbing historical novel. It addresses in frank terms the issues of growing up. The story is especially intriguing because this growing-up process takes place in an atmosphere of self-denial and strictest celibacy. Two teenage characters, Sarah Barker and Abel Church, are drawn to each other despite residing in a religious community that rejects marriage as the greatest sin of the flesh. The community observes rules that keep boys and men apart from girls and women. Members are taught to regard themselves as brothers and sisters, and to address each other as such.

This strict community, although fictional, is based upon fact. Yolen explores her themes in terms of the history of the United Society of Believers in the First and Second Appearing of Christ, commonly known as the Shakers. The Shakers flourished from Revolutionary times in America to the 1860s, then went into a period of decline. The Shakers eventually disappeared because they rejected marriage and childbearing. The novel covers a two-week period in 1854 during which Sarah and Abel meet secretly while they wrestle with inner doubts, longings, and questions about the outside "World."

Although readers may be especially gripped by the testing tensions within Sarah and Abel, as well as by the vexatious relations between them and the adults they live among, their story holds universal implications. Through Sarah especially, Yolen explores the haunting problem of child abuse by a parent that is found in every community and society. In addition, the Shaker community revolves around strict observances and absolute supervision by a man addressed as Father and a woman as Mother. Yolen's picture of this rigidly structured group evokes images of modern cults and of dictatorial practices which still exist in many countries. The story of Sarah and Abel touches on important issues of thought control, invasion of privacy, child development, community responsibility, and gender roles.

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