This book, part of the “Dear America” series, was written for children ages eight through twelve, and was originally published in 2011. It has been republished because it deals with the impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on families. I found in slightly didactic, but didn’t stop reading.
Eleven year old Lydia and her older brother Daniel are suddenly orphaned by influenza, which could kill in less than 48 hours. Their nearest relative (an uncle) is unable to care for them, so they are taken to the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake.
Historical background: The American Shakers were a Utopian religious sect. Committed to celibacy, the communities grew by accepting converts and fostering orphan children. In 1918, their numbers were declining, and there were more female than male Shakers. In addition to farming, they manufactured high quality furniture, wooden boxes, herbal remedies and clothing to support themselves.
Lowry paints a positive picture of Shaker life at that time and place, and the fictional Lydia could certainly have faced far worse circumstances. The big shock for her was the almost total separation of the sexes in Shaker life. Lydia couldn’t visit freely with her brother. She adapted quickly to the Shaker lifestyle of simplicity, hard work, good food, worship and joyful singing. Daniel, however, ran away, leaving Lydia afraid for his safety. He returns during a blizzard, when the community needs help. An epilogue suggests Lydia left the community to marry at age 23, but Daniel was a Shaker all his life.
Only a few Shakers now survive, but “Requirements for Membership” are posted on their website. I found a news article suggesting a new member may join the group. Sabbathday Lake has become a retreat center, and is supported by an active “Friends of the Shakers” organization, consisting of people who value the spiritual and cultural heritage of Shakerism. Their worship (absent Covid) is open to all. I would like to visit them.