Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Anna's World

Anna's WorldAnna’s World

Author: Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin
Chiron Books
Ages 8 and above

Before reading this book, I knew little about the Shakers, except in the context of handcrafted furniture. Like the Amish, or the town of Mattur in India where only Sanskrit is spoken, the Shakers seemed to symbolize a way of life as daunting as it was quaint - holding on to a culture that would otherwise have become extinct in the normal course of events. It is rather telling of the times we live in that the Amish are dwindling, there are just three Shakers left in the world., and Mattur is growing as a software development hub, due to the close links between Sanskrit and coding . It would seem that simplicity is, in fact, a remarkably difficult thing to achieve. And yet, surrounded as we are by the noise, pollution and violence that we often call progress, which of us does not crave the pure life? For me, reading 'Anna's World' was thus more than just an introduction to the Shakers - it was a gentle reminder of the things that really matter to me, and the kind of values I'd like to live by.I expect this book, with its lucid narrative and quiet wisdom, will have much the same effect on the far younger readers it is meant for.

'Anna's World' offers its readers a peek into life in a Shaker community, through the eyes of a fourteen year old girl. The book has won several awards including the Moonbeam Children's Book Awards, and a Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award for its combination of history and fiction,and its gentle yet powerful message about moral choices. In an ocean of Young Adult books that offer a million alternatives to escape from the everyday angst of being young - superhuman powers, time travel, romance with vampires - here is a remarkable coming of age story with a difference.

Set in the 1800s, this is the story of Anna Coburn, who is sent to live in the secluded Shaker village of Goshen while her father struggles through financial difficulties.For independent and outspoken Anna,life in the commune, with its dedication to austerity and hard work, is very difficult at first. She cannot understand why they keep men and women segregated or why they have to endure long periods of enforced silence. While the hard labour is not something she really minds, what really irks her is the deliberate distancing from the 'World'.

"Bend, bend, bend,"goes the refrain of one of the songs sung at the village. "And your sorrows soon will end." But Anna finds this bending - this deliberate erosion of self to merge into the cohesive whole of the community , both unappealing and pointless. Small things leave her baffled - that roses may never be picked with a stem, so no one is tempted to pin one to their lapel or in their hair; that she can mend her own clothes but never make them ;that for all the claims to simplicity, her clothes are as fussy and petticoat-laden as the silly fashions popular in the World.And most confounding of all, Shaker shoes - made identical for either foot so that they, like Anna's life with the Shakers, are a terrible fit . Yet, she knows she is lucky - she is merely at the commune for a short while. Others, like her friend Sally, have been indentured, practically signed over to the permanent custody of the Shakers by parents too poor to raise her. For a while, Anna lives vicariously through Sally and her various intrigues, until their lives diverge in an incident that marks the beginning of Anna's journey to adulthood.

Gradually, Anna finds friends - Sister Zenobia, the charismatic brother Seth, and celebrated author Henry David Thoreau himself. And, despite her many apprehensions, Anna turns out to be more Shaker than she realizes. When she leaves the village to join her father and his new wife in Boston, she finds the outside world both unpleasant and morally conflicted. Newly wealthy, her father expects Anna to lead a life of leisure like other girls her age and social status. Slavery exists as well as apathy for the people of Mexico, being slaughtered in a war with the USA that they are unprepared for. Worse, Anna's father‘s fortune is built on this very war, in partnership with a man who has betrayed the Shakers and threatened her life. Even as Anna struggles to reconcile her life with her beliefs, she is thrown into danger again.

'Anna's World' moves smoothly from history to mystery, weaving in some very powerful observations on moral choices and conviction in one’s beliefs. Anna is a compelling protagonist, sensitive and aware, and through her eyes the reader is offered a child’s eye view of two vastly different worlds. Neither the ‘World’ nor Shaker life is ideal, and the narrative deftly reveals Anna’s growing maturity as she learns to question and negotiate the hurdles she confronts in each. I especially liked the way a real historical figure, Thoreau, was introduced into the story, guiding Anna gently along on her journey towards finding herself and her calling.

The book features some moving Shaker poems and songs with lyrics that mirror the philosophy behind them - simple yet very profound. "Consider, then, what all trees know," says Sister Zenobia, a highly educated and independent woman who has chosen the Shaker way of life. "To live means nothing but to grow." And elsewhere in the book, Anna has an epiphany about a Scripture passage describing a ladder to heaven. The ladder itself, she realizes is Heaven; it is not the destination but the journey towards spiritual growth that matters- a life of hard work is its own reward. When Anna finally makes her choice she does so with grace and maturity -like with her odd Shaker shoes, she finds she has grown into the life that is meant for her.

Some might call the book too pacifist; what, after all, does Anna (or any other Shaker) achieve by isolating herself from a greater world and its conflicts, except a kind of convenient myopia? And what use is a moral choice that merely involves turning away from suffering, rather than actively intervening to help? Yet, as Gandhiji said, you cannot change the world; you can only change yourself. perhaps Anna, in choosing to dedicate herself to preserving a certain way of life, does in fact make that intervention.

A book that stays with you long after you've set it down.

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utbtkids said...

My first intro to Shakers is the song my children sing in school

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,

'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,

To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

I find this song extremely powerful helps me clear my brain sometimes.

WJ, from now on, instead of reading books, I must just ask you to give me a summary :) It was very fulfilling to read your review.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Wordjunkie, thanks for introducing us to this book. Sounds like a good read. The Shaker community and the time frame 1800s is something I am very curious about.


Vibha said...

Never read anything on Shakers but always wanted to. This book sounds like the perfect one to pick for into to Shakers.
Your sneak peak into Anna's World was simply beautiful.

sandhya said...

Seems like a great book to get for the 9yr old here.

I followed the link you provided to the Shaker world, WJ, and the kind of life they espouse seems in some way to be like the Bramhakumaris in India, or that of followers of Jainism who have renounced the world. I may be wrong, as I have seen both these communities from the outside, although quite closely, having close family friends in both sects.

Tharini said...

And a review that stays with you, long after you've read the last word. Wow WJ! I am just spellbound, and feeling this incredible stillness inside me.

You've raised some very powerful and hard questions, one that we will all take our lifetimes to answer for ourselves.

I think I want to read this for me, and learn more intimately about Anna's life.

Your review is something out of this world.

sathish said...

WJ, powerful book. I would definitely be interested in reading it.

wordjunkie said...

@utbt: what lovely lyrics!!.. I've written it down and stuck it up at my desk.Thanks for sharing it.

@Rachna, Vibha, Satish : Definitely. It's a book I will return to.

@Sandhya.. Interesting! will go read up about the Brahmakumaris now.

@Tharini.. Thank you.. This book is so moving, the review just wrote itself.

Meera Sriram said...

WJ, having lived in New Hampshire (New England), we are familiar with Shakerism. But never read a book before. The way you started the review giving us a reason to pick up the book was very convincing. I think such fiction is also a great way to teach the country's history during that period. And Thoreou (and Waldo Emerson) are big in those parts. Great pick!

artnavy said...

I was spell bound. It is a bit distrubing too... have only seen Shakers depicted in film/ on TV... this seems a more non judgemental view...

Praba Ram said...

gosh, another wonderful pick after Masai and me. In some ways similar because both stories revolve around a child's view of two different worlds with the message of simplicity woven in.

A riveting review of one amazing book in the young adult category. I am going to check it out for myself first. Thanks!


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