Themes and Characters

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The story begins with fourteen-year-old Sarah's efforts to keep secret the happy time she has spent alone enjoying the early spring on top of Holy Hill. She is naturally exuberant, self-questioning, and fond of secrets. She is stubborn enough to ignore the Shaker rule of openness, and she tells lies to hide her innermost thoughts and forbidden acts. Sarah tries to be pure and obedient in the Shaker way, but she cannot seem to find her particular "gift." She vaguely remembers happy times with her parents before she was a Shaker, although these are hard to reconcile with the harshly abusive presence of her mother in the settlement.

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Sarah's inner struggles are increased by her awareness of Abel, the novel's other prominent character. Sixteen-year-old Abel, left to the Shakers as a foundling, also wonders about the World outside. He questions most of all the Shaker rule of celibacy. Although he tries to be a faithful Shaker, he is gripped by "sudden Worldly thoughts" that center on pretty Sarah. He admires her frightened yet "defiant" attitude, and he too can keep a secret. Sarah is drawn as well to Abel because he seems to be like her, "spoiling the perfect Shaker picture."

The teenagers, in unchaperoned meetings that are a Shaker "sin almost beyond confessing," help each other gain a better understanding of themselves, their world, and what it means to be friends. Their quests for true identity and intimate caring involve themes that are not limited to Shaker history. The pair's plight addresses the need for life-enhancing relations with others and brings into question the proper purposes of community. The teenagers proceed through contacts with a range of lesser Shaker characters, who generally fail them: "They hear but they do not listen." Abel finds no way to "fit in" with younger Brothers John, Jacob, Jonas, and Andrew. Older Brothers Theodore, Stephen, and Matthew—"all hardworking and soft-spoken"— strikingly exemplify the imposed conformity that destroys self-identity. "Though he had known them all his life, Abel found them almost indistinguishable." Old Brother Eben suppressed his personal desires long ago, and Brother Frank yields himself to the silent comfort of a long-stemmed clay pipe.

Abel relates only to Brother Joshua, an unassuming, twenty-year Shaker by personal choice. Abel trusts Joshua, who still possesses a "crusty honesty and unshakerly heart." Joshua can provide quietly realistic guidance. He urges Abel to feel free to make his own choice in life, to beware of yearnings that could be "spring jimjams," and to trust himself. The older man has no use for the men's group leader, Father James. "I have been your father," Joshua tells Abel, "more than that self-righteous prig ever has been."

Father James, unlike Joshua, is a self-righteous lifelong Shaker. He is stern, watchful, unforgiving, and "as rigorous as any prophet in seeking out sins in others." Abel resists the power of Father James, while Sarah fears it. Sarah likes the women's leader, Mother Jean, who possesses a degree of human warmth and mercy. Mother Jean joined the Shakers many years ago at the death of her Worldly husband and child, and she is very fond of Sarah. Still Mother Jean supplies Shaker maxims rather than help. "The answers to questions come only in silence," she says, when Sarah desperately needs serious discussion.

Sister Agatha, a very vivid character, most rouses Sarah's need to talk. Agatha is Sarah's mother, who fled with her daughter to the Shakers. Sarah cherishes ten-year-old memories of a lullaby-singing mother and a loving father full of laughter. A changed, self-punishing Agatha renounces her husband, Sarah's father, as Satan; worse, she rejects Sarah and spurns her daughter's repeated loving overtures. At times Agatha beats Sarah mercilessly, and shouts at her: "Imp! Devil! Satan's child!"This cruelty of mother...

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