Robert Newton Peck and Shaker Beliefs:
A Day the Truth Would Die
When is an author of fiction obligated to reflect the real world? Should the realm of fiction be a sanctuary for the imagination, devoid of any responsibility to accurately reflect the world around us, or does any act of authorship carry with it certain social obligations? Certainly, authors of fiction should be free to create characters and situations that allow them to fully explore their subjects, but does this freedom to create extend to allowing the unrestrained representation of preexisting groups? I don't believe that it does. I believe authors are obligated to depict preestablished groups, whether religious, ethnic, or racial with some degree of accuracy.
The young adult classic A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck purports to tell the fictionalized story of Mr. Peck's childhood growing up as a member of a Shaker family in rural Vermont (as claimed on the book jacket and reinforced by the use of the author's name as protagonist). The book, which is widely read as part of the standard curriculum in many school districts across the nation, contains a number of young Rob's experiences, many of which are based on his childish misunderstandings about the world around him. It also deals with serious issues such as poverty, moral obligation, love, and death. In one chapter, for instance, Rob and his father, Haven, make a midnight trip into town to stop the desecration of a relative's grave by a married Shaker neighbor who was the father of the dead woman's illegitimate child.
Scenes such as the midnight trip to the graveyard help to give this book its grounding as a strongly moralistic novel; they also, however, raise questions about the limits of fiction. The issue is not that the incident just described is poorly written. On the contrary, it is related in the best tradition of story telling. It is full of suspense and strong emotion, and it has a satisfying resolution. Unfortunately though, it also contributes to an almost libelous description of who the Shakers really are.
Who are the Shakers? When I began reading A Day No Pigs Would Die, I knew almost nothing about the Shakers. My only point of reference to them was a vague recollection that they made nice chairs and were some sort of religious sect. I was unaware of the basic precepts of Shakerism, and I assumed that - somewhere - they still flourished, sort of like the Amish, but with slightly different commercial products to show for their labor. What I learned about them while investigating the depiction of Shaker culture in this young adult classic proved to be as disturbing as it was interesting.
The Shakers are an offshoot of the Quakers. Founded in the early 1760s by James and Jane Wardley, they were originally known as the Shaking Quakers. The Wardleys preached that the second coming of Christ was at hand, and that this time he would return as a woman. Shortly after the Wardleys split from the main body of Quakers, a young, illiterate factory worker named Ann Lee became one of their followers. Ann was the daughter of a blacksmith. She had been forced by her father to marry another blacksmith, even though she was very much against the idea of marriage. Ann professed to having "a great abhorrence of the fleshly co-habitation of the sexes" (Burns, p. 23). Even so, she had four children by her husband, three of whom died as infants. The fourth died in early childhood. Ann believed that the children died because she had violated God's laws by having intercourse with a man.
After the death of her fourth child, Ann began to hear voices and see visions. She began to preach loudly in public about the evils of both the church and marriage. This kind of publicity gained the Shakers many new members, but it also gained them many new enemies, and resulted in violence and persecution against them. Many were jailed for, among other things, disrupting the church services of other Christian congregations. Ann Lee was among those jailed. According to her own account, she spent fourteen days in solitary confinement, suffering inhuman cruelty. However, this account of her jailing is highly disputed, since her offense was a minor one, and prison records do not show her being confined for more than one day. In fact, at least one modern researcher states flatly, "the story is false" (Yolen, p. 21).
When Ann emerged from prison, she announced that she was the female equivalent of Jesus Christ. The Wardleys and their followers believed her, and Ann was formally acknowledged as the new leader of the Shakers. In 1774 she began to have visions about America, and during the summer of that year, she and eight followers sailed to New York. (Interestingly, the Wardleys were not among the passengers.) During the sea voyage, Mother Ann, as she was now known, felt compelled to "testify against the wickedness of the seamen" (Burns, p. 25), an act that almost got her and her followers thrown overboard.
Once in America, the Shakers settled at Niskayuna, south of Albany, and waited for converts to flock to their cause, as Mother Ann had prophesied they would. Eventually, converts did come, most of the early ones being revivalists who were dissatisfied with the "salvation" offered at the nearby revival town of Lebanon. With this influx of new members, the Shakers became firmly established, though they still suffered from the ill will of the general populace, partially because they were strict pacifists who refused to support the American Revolutionary War effort.
In the ensuing years, the Shakers founded a number of other communities, mostly in the northeast but also several in Ohio and Kentucky. At their height in 1850, they numbered six thousand members in eighteen communities, though, importantly, there was never a Shaker community in the state of Vermont (Newman, p. 310). In the early days of the group's existence, a covenant was created, a legal document that had to be signed by any new member before that person was accepted into the Shaker community. The covenant deeded all of the members worldly goods to the Shaker community and formalized the new member's acceptance of the Shaker lifestyle. Without signing the covenant, a person could not become a Shaker. The covenant was legally closed in 1957. There is now no way for a person to legally become a Shaker, though there is still a Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, that has refused to accept that the covenant is officially closed. This last Shaker community numbers less than a dozen members but continues to live in accordance with Shaker precepts.
Originally, the Shakers did not possess a group of rules by which they defined themselves. In the earliest days, while still in England, the Shaking Quakers were united simply by the common nature of their visionary practice. They were a group that felt inspired by God. They believed that the return of Christ was imminent, and that he would return as a female. Beyond that, there was no common body of doctrine that needed to be accepted in order for someone to become a member of their circle.
Once Ann Lee proclaimed that "she represented the second appearance of the Christ spirit" (Newman, p. 304), all that changed. Ann's beliefs (which, after all, were now the word of God) supplied the principles by which the Shakers lived their lives. Chief among these rules of conduct was celibacy. According to Ann Lee, the cardinal sin was "cohabitation of the sexes" (Yolen, p. 16).
The Shakers were also adamant pacifists, refusing to get involved in any way in worldly conflict. As mentioned previously, this belief caused some early problems for the founding members of the sect, as the timing of their establishment in America coincided with the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
Shakers could own no personal property. The fact that all worldly goods had to be signed over to the community upon entering Shaker life may sound like just another cult-like scam to a modern reader, but the Shakers were sincere proponents of communal living. They have been described as the longest existing utopian communal society in the history of the United States (Burns, p. 96).
Another main tenet of Shaker belief is total equality of the sexes. Their belief in "a deity with dual aspects, male and female, place[s] women on equal footing with men" (Newman, p. 304). This, in part, helps to explain some of the attraction that Shakerism held for women of that time. During the nineteenth century, a Shaker community was probably one of the only places in America where a woman could live in total equality with men. Unfortunately, this may also have contributed to the fact that, as the years passed, fewer and fewer "brothers" stayed with the group, though, to be sure, there were many other factors that contributed to the group's loss of membership.
Shakers believe that one should live a life free of "frills." They are committed to being practical. They feel that the things they create should be functional but not ornamental. Many people confuse this devotion to usefulness with a rejection of progress. This is untrue. The Shakers are actually very progressive. They were the inventors of many labor saving devices, which in true Shaker fashion they refused to patent because they didn't want to "take advantage of their fellow creatures" (Burns, p. 86). Shakers devote themselves to their work as a form of worship. One of Mother Ann's most often repeated sayings is, "Put your hands to work, put your hearts to God" (Yolen, p. 36).
Besides the rules stated above, Shakers also believed in singing, dancing, and ecstatic worship services. As time passed, the spontaneous nature of their early "shaking" behavior became ritualized and was replaced by formalized song and dance. Occasionally, however, the old spirit would still move a brother or sister during a meeting, and the congregation would experience what was referred to as a "Shaker high," complete with speaking in tongues, shaking, and members spinning and leaping in the air. Discrepancies between Shaker Beliefs and A Day No Pigs Would Die Having established the basic nature of Shakerism, it is now possible to begin considering some of the elements of the book A Day No Pigs Would Die that seem to contradict those fundamental beliefs. In examining these troublesome issues, I will try to offer possible explanations for the discrepancies, though as will become evident, these attempted explanations become more and more difficult to rationalize.
The first, and most difficult to explain of all the discrepancies, is the fact that the book deals with a Shaker family. There were no Shaker families. The basic Shaker belief in the separation of the sexes did not even allow for men and women to live in the same building with one another, let alone marry. When sharing a building could not be avoided, men and women had to occupy separate floors of that same building. At meetings, men and women had to enter the meeting house through separate doors, sit on opposite sides of the room, and be careful never to touch each other during the spontaneous dancing that inevitably occurred at the early meetings. Yet in the novel, Rob's parents are married and have a number of children (Rob being the youngest). How can this be?
Not only are the Pecks married, but according to the book, several of their daughters had to get married because they became pregnant out of wedlock. In addition to this apparent sexual impropriety, the novel tells the story - referred to earlier - of a Shaker neighbor who goes to a graveyard and digs up a child he fostered in an act of adultery. This act is very unusual behavior for a group of people who claim celibacy as the foundation of their religious beliefs.
This incident also brings up the issue of the Pecks living near a town that includes quite a number of other Shaker families. In reality, Shakers lived only within the boundaries of their own self-contained communities. There was no private property; all members lived communally. Yet, in the novel, the Peck family is working hard to pay off their mortgage, as are the other Shakers in the area. Though there is no listing of all of the Shaker families in the area, the book suggests that there are quite a few, as the author refers more than once to the meeting house in town, a structure that would hardly be necessary if the Pecks did not have a reasonably large number of Shaker neighbors.
Another belief of the Shakers that strikes at the very heart of this novel is that Shakers did not believe in keeping nonessential animals. They had animals that contributed directly to the welfare and productivity of the farm, but they never kept pets. In the novel, Pinky is Rob's pet pig. She does not contribute to the farm in any way. In fact, she is actually a drain on the meager resources available to the Pecks because she is barren and cannot produce any offspring. Eventually, they are forced to slaughter her for food, though that was not their original intention. It was only done out of necessity. At one point in the novel, Rob says to his pet pig, "Pinky do you know I was named after Major Robert Rogers, and that he was a Shaker just like me and you?" (p. 47). He goes on to explain that "Robert Rogers didn't have to run from the Indians at all. He could of turned and fought em off one by one, and killed every last one of them" (p. 47). While investigating this reference, I learned that there really was a Major Robert Rogers in Vermont history, and that he was the leader of a group of soldiers who were responsible for the greatest massacre of Native Americans in Vermont history. This is another aspect of the book that seems to diverge radically from Shaker beliefs. If Shakers are committed pacifists, how could one of them join the army and become a famous Indian killer? I believe the answer to that question is that Robert Rogers was not a Shaker at all. This appears to be another instance of Mr. Peck altering facts to help his story progress in the direction that he wants it to.
The novel also refers many times to "The Book of Shaker." The implication being that it is the holy book of the Shaker people. At one point when Rob asks his father if he believes all the Shaker laws, his father replies, "Most. I'm glad it's all writ down in the Book of Shaker" (p. 32). The only problem with this statement is that there is no Book of Shaker. There never has been. Shakers do not have a special book that contains all of their rules and laws. Shakers subscribe to a small group of precepts such as celibacy, communal living, confession of sin, and pacifism, but there is no holy book of the Shakers.
In trying to find explanations for these inconsistencies, I considered a number of possibilities. Originally, I thought that there might be various sects of Shakers, not all of whom followed the same principles. This would account for the many variances between what I had learned about the Shakers and the way they are portrayed in the novel.
I thought I might have found a reference to exactly that type of possibility in Simple Gifts: The Story of the Shakers by Jane Yolen. She describes a phenomenon known as "Winter Shakers." Winter Shakers were people who were unable to survive on their own over the long New England winters and were taken in by the Shakers and fed and sheltered in exchange for work (p. 56). Though Ms. Yolen never follows up on what became of these people after they left the Shaker communities, it seemed possible that some of them might have held on to a smattering of Shaker beliefs, at least the belief in hard work and avoiding frills, the only Shaker principles that the Pecks seem to maintain.
There is a problem with this theory, though. For one thing, there were very few Winter Shakers. So, even though it might seem plausible that Rob's parents (or maybe even his grandparents) could have been Winter Shakers, it does not seem reasonable to suppose that a large segment of the population of Learning, Vermont, had Winter Shaker ancestors. And if they did not, how could there be enough Shakers in the area to have a meeting house? To further complicate the issue of whether Shakers had ever lived in Vermont, I learned that there was a "Shaker cabin" on display at the museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Hoping to discover whether this might be the missing Vermont-Shaker connection, I got the telephone number for the museum and called in search of answers. I spoke with Jean Burkes, the Curator of Decorative Arts. She is an expert on the Shakers, having previously been the Curator at the Shaker museum at Old Chatham, New York. She explained that the Shaker cabin they have at the Shelburne Museum was actually imported from the Canterbury, New Hampshire, Shaker community. In response to my question about the possibility of any Shakers ever having lived in Vermont, she simply said, "Oh no, no, no, no, no." She said I could quote her on that. She reaffirmed that there had never been Shakers in Vermont, of any variety. She gave me some more background information about Shaker history, and even more interestingly, provided me with the address and telephone number of the last Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. She suggested that I talk with Brother Arnold, who is one of the last remaining Shakers and the curator of the museum at that community.
Thinking that there could be no more definitive source of information about Shakers than the Shakers themselves, I resolved to speak with Brother Arnold. When I called him at the community at Sabbathday Lake, I explained that I was a student at Syracuse University doing a research project about the young adult book A Day No Pigs Would Die, and that I would like to ask him a few questions concerning some things in the novel by which I had been puzzled. Brother Arnold readily agreed to talk to me about the book, and something in the tone of his voice hinted that he might already be familiar with it. I asked him if he knew the book and was mildly surprised when he indicated that he did. I suppose I had erroneously pictured their community as being out of touch with the world, and so I was somewhat taken back by his knowledge of a young adult novel. Nevertheless, I began by saying, "From what I have been able to learn, it seems to me that the whole book is a total fabrication. A lie." Brother Arnold's response was a hearty, "Bingo!" He said that the Shaker Community found the book to be very upsetting. "It's awful," he said, and explained that, when the novel first came out, the community had contacted the author about it, but to no avail. Mr. Peck's defense was that his book was just a novel portraying simple country life, and that it did no harm.
Since Brother Arnold had only a few minutes to talk before he had to go down to the barn (they had new baby lambs to take care of), I quickly asked him whether Shaker beliefs were written down anywhere. He said that, contrary to what is written in the novel, there is "no secret book of the Shakers." I asked him if Shaker beliefs were codified in any written form, and he said, "We don't have a formal creed. There are just basic touchstones. We call them the three Cs: Community, Celibacy, and Confession of Sin." I also couldn't resist asking him if all the members of the community believed that Mother Ann was the reincarnation of Christ, or if that was an optional item of faith. He said that it was considered optional. His view was that Mother Ann had not really claimed to be Christ, but rather, that she was something like a Saint Paul figure, and that she was revered, but not necessarily worshipped.
Based on all of the information I have been able to gather, it seems that there are quite a few inconsistencies in Robert Newton Peck's novel that defy explanation. How could he possibly be basing the story A Day No Pigs Would Die on his own childhood as a Shaker growing up in rural Vermont, when Shakers don't have children, and they never lived in Vermont? If Mr. Peck's defense for the inaccuracies in his book is that he was merely trying to write a book about simple country life, I find that rationale unacceptable. It seems more likely that he was trying to write a book that would have an unusual feature in it, such as Shakerism, in order to generate interest in his work.
It is irresponsible to allow young readers to believe that the picture he paints of Shaker life is an accurate reflection of real Shaker beliefs. He should have removed the Shaker element from his story and turned it into a simple story of a boy growing up in Vermont, without the fallacious portrayal of religious affiliations. Otherwise, it seems to me, he is guilty of perpetuating misinformation about the Shakers. And, since it is entirely possible that this book could be the only reference many young readers will ever have to Shakerism, he is providing them with a false picture of who the Shakers are that will likely remain unchallenged, and uncorrected, in the minds of those young readers.
To claim that, because it is a novel, the story does not need to be factually accurate is to intentionally avoid the question of integrity. If, for example, an author were to write a book about a boy in an Orthodox Jewish home who eats pork because this kind of rebellion is central to his character, that's one thing; but would it be acceptable to have such a character eat pork regularly, without explanation, and thereby suggest that doing so was part of Orthodox Jewish culture? Certainly not. Similarly, to write a story with so many glaring contradictions to the Shaker way of life, without in any way dealing with those contradictions, is sloppy at best, and misleading at worst. I assume this work has gone unchallenged to this point simply because very few people know enough about the Shakers to realize what has been done and because there are not enough Shakers left to have the political influence necessary to bring attention to the book's inaccurate portrayal of their culture. It is one thing to create a fictional character who can behave however an author wishes, but it is quite another thing to portray a real religious (or ethnic, or racial) group with qualities that are actually contrary to that group's beliefs and customs, unless, of course, those divergent qualities are somehow accounted for within the text. Any teachers who use A Day No Pigs Would Die should consider the facts presented here, and seriously consider either altering their curriculum to approach the book from a more investigative angle, or perhaps revising their reading list altogether.
Brother Arnold. Personal interview. April 14, 1996.
Burkes, Jean. Personal interview. April 11, 1996.
Burns, Amy S. The Shakers: Hands to Work Hearts to God. Aperture Books, 1987.
Newman, Cathy. "The Shaker's Brief Eternity," National Geographic. September, 1989, pp. 302-325.
Peck, Robert Newton. A Day No Pigs Would Die. Knopf, 1972.
Yolen, Jane. Simple Gifts: The Story of the Shakers. Viking Press, 1976.
Michael Sullivan was in the English Education Graduate Program at Syracuse University when he wrote this article.