For one fleeting, "iridescent" moment, that crucial summer of 1972, June Sprigg considered committing to the Shaker way of life. In a way, she has. She didn't, of course, sign the Covenant; even if she wanted to, the Shakers no longer accepted converts. Since celibacy formed an important tenant of their faith, and membership had peaked more than a century earlier, only a few of their number remained. In that remnant mostly female and faltering physically faith, duty, and love burned as brightly as ever, igniting in the then-19-year-old Sprigg a hunger to discover and internalize their quality of contentment.
The author's interest in Shaker workmanship and a curiosity about the Believers themselves first dawned during childhood vacations, but it was during that first summer at a Shaker community in Canterbury, New Hampshire, that the direction of her life changed forever. Sprigg searched photo albums and the absorbing journals of Shaker Elders, she guided tours, and immersed herself in the aura of days long past yet startlingly present. There, she recorded her observations in journal entries and drawings; there, Simple Gifts finds its genesis less in researched information than through actually experiencing the atmosphere and personalities of the Shaker life.
With Simple Gifts, Sprigg continues to enliven the history of this unique tradition and its followers. "Hands to work, hearts to God" shapes the Shaker ethic, in which the community is emphasized over the individual; precision is paramount in craftsmanship, in relationships, and in personal actions; technology is embraced when it leads to proficiency and product, rejected where it threatens unity.
Perhaps dearest to young June while in Canterbury were Lillian, a gifted musician, 80 years a Shaker, who had come as a teenager for physical healing and unexpectedly found her calling, and Bertha, consummate cook, who functioned more comfortably as a "simple Kitchen Sister" than in leadership roles thrust upon her as Eldress. Gertrude, Eldress recently transplanted from the Sabbathday Lake community, was a night-owl, unfailingly late for breakfast, but forgiven not only because forgiveness came readily to the Shaker spirit, but also for her unflagging charm. Her malapropisms provided continual amusement.
That summer of 1972 changed Sprigg's life, and she, in turn, enriches others' lives by perpetuating the record of this remarkable sect through her writing and sketches. In Simple Gifts, the author's crystalline imagery, insightful observations, and gentle portraits transport the reader to a serenity not often achieved. With Sprigg, readers walk a rich path. Perhaps, with such a knowledgeable tour guide, readers will explore deeper possibilities for their own life experiences.
Reviewed by Evelyn Minshull.