The story takes place, except for a brief epilogue, in the Shaker community of New Vale, Massachusetts, from April 27 to May 9, 1854. The inhabitants of New Vale keep strictly to themselves. Their sole contacts with the outside World occur when curiosity-seekers come to view the Sabbath rituals, and when a selected few Shakers take the group's products to market. The Shakers need little in return except the money and news they get from the World's folk, since they maintain a self-sufficient, hardworking communal settlement.
Besides buildings for various purposes, a Holy Hill exists on Shaker land for the observance of Mountain Feast days. Shakers observe rituals that include periods of prayerful silence, processions in perfect rows to meals, and meetings and ceremonies that include the frenzied dancing or "shaking" that gave the group its popular name. Shakers sing hymns of praise for love and freedom, while their lives are rigidly ordered to discourage personal expression. Strong measures are taken to prevent the growth of meaningful relationships, above all those that might occur between men and women.
Tasks are arranged so that the sisters perform traditional "women's work" of housekeeping and cooking. The brothers perform the usual "men's work" of farming and heavy maintenance. The Quarters in the central Dwelling House are separated according to gender, with rooms assigned by age as well. Meals are taken in common, but men and women are separated by at least five feet of space. Daily activities require participation in a gender group of two or more. There is no privacy: "Secrets are not the Shaker way."
Yolen employs a variety of techniques that sustain interest, support mood and theme, and develop character and plot. Reader interest is drawn by rhythmic, flowing writing, but the style is somber as well. This device helps to communicate the repressive flavor of Shaker living even when the scenes involve joyful celebration. The novel's convincing realism derives in part from Yolen's research into Shaker history, including her observation of the actual round barn at Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts. Realism is also conveyed by deft portrayal of human nature and the effective differentiation of characters, although the overall group is stereotypical. The plot and Sarah's nuanced, realistic characterization stem largely from Yolen's perception of her daughter Heidi, when at the age that girls become interesting to boys. The tension between celibate rule and human yearning is heightened by the youth of the central characters, and by the setting of springtime awakening. Yolen repeatedly employs sensory adjectives and outdoor settings to underscore the idea that human life is part of nature and entitled to expression.
Yolen mirrors the Shaker separation of genders by alternating chapters between Sarah and Abel. By shifting the viewpoint from one central character to the other as the chapters progress, Yolen equalizes the sexes, heightens interest, and fills in essential detail. Several chapters entitled "Meeting" enable Yolen to develop viewpoints of other characters and to describe pivotal group moments. Shifts between the spellings of "Sara" and "Sarah" subtly stress the difference between the community's formal point of view and the character's desire to be her natural self.
Memory flashbacks are used very effectively to facilitate the understanding of characters and events. Sarah's memories of her Worldly past are developed to evoke intrigue. Sarah glances around her "perfect" Shaker room, for example, and suddenly recalls another: "small, crowded, and smoky." Her mind sees homey things, hears sounds: "a woman crooning a low lullaby and the voice of a laughing man." The mind-picture stops there, to be filled in gradually by other memories until the man emerges as Sarah's Worldly father. The failure of Father James in Sarah's life is underscored by a scene that finds the teenager looking at his face but seeing imposed upon it...
(The entire section is 2,242 words.)