During the mid-19th century, the Shakers were the largest and most successful utopian group in existence, with tight-knit communities scattered throughout the Northeast and in Kentucky. The religious sect, which began in England during the late 1700s, stressed equality of the sexes, pacifism and hard work. Sexual relations, even among married couples, were forbidden, making it a difficult religion for many to follow.
Today, the Shakers are mainly remembered for their ladder-back furniture, crafts and recipes, each as simple as they are exquisite. One Shaker community still remains in Maine, as well as several heritage villages and museums.
Eleanor Kuhns acutely captures the movement in her superb debut, which is resplendent with affecting details about daily life in a Shaker village in 1795. “A Simple Murder” works as an intense historical but also a heartfelt story about families, especially the bonds between fathers and sons, and the grievances that can pull relatives apart.
Widowed weaver Will Rees returns to his Maine farm that he left in the care of his sister and her husband with the proviso that they care for his son, David. But Will finds the farm in disarray, his cattle sold and, most important, that David has run away to join the Shaker community. Wanting to repair his relationship with his 13-year-old son, Will agrees to help the Shakers find out who killed one of their female members. Will’s reputation as an investigator in the Continental Army makes him most suited to solve this crime.
Kuhns skillfully weaves in historical details about the times and the Shaker movement in “A Simple Murder.” Kuhns, a career librarian, shows how the Shakers lived, their daily routines and their commitment to their religion, as well as how others were often suspicious of them. Kuhns also is careful to show the Shakers are devout, good-hearted people who, as we all are, also are flawed.
While Will’s investigation jumpstarts the plot, his need to reconnect with his son takes priority. His growing affection for Lydia Jane Farrell, a former Shaker living near the settlement, adds to the emotion of “A Simple Murder.”
Kuhns’ affinity for showing the complicated relationships that drive people shines in this strong debut. (MCT)