Read The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times by Ilyon Woo Online


Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is a dramatic, richly textured narrative history of early America’s most infamous divorce case. A young mother singlehandedly challenged her country’s notions of women’s rights, family, and marriage itself—all in a bid to win back her kidnapped children from the celibate, religious sect known as the Shakers. Pulling together the pieces of thisIlyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is a dramatic, richly textured narrative history of early America’s most infamous divorce case. A young mother singlehandedly challenged her country’s notions of women’s rights, family, and marriage itself—all in a bid to win back her kidnapped children from the celibate, religious sect known as the Shakers. Pulling together the pieces of this saga from crumbled newspapers, Shaker diaries, and long-forgotten letters, Woo delivers the first full account of Eunice Chapman’s epic five-year struggle. A moving story about the power of a mother’s love, The Great Divorce is also a memorable portrait of a rousing challenge to the values of a young nation....

Title : The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780802145376
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 350 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times Reviews

  • Amy Sturgis
    2019-02-07 16:09

    Ilyon Woo does an admirable job of telling a dramatic tale with perceptiveness and sensitivity toward all sides. Recommended for those interested in women's history, religious history, early 19th-century U.S. history, or the Shakers, in particular. This would make a powerful film!

  • Grace
    2019-02-06 14:27

    Ilyon Woo uncovers and intriguing story that begins a revolution in divorce and custody laws in New York State and across America. Set during the 1810s in upstate New York, the story details the life of Eunice Chapman, a bright and forceful woman who refuses to stay within her assigned gender role and fights for her children after her estranged husband takes them to live with him in a Shaker community near Albany.Mrs. Chapman employed several methods to spread the word about the injustices she endured, including courting several state legislatures (with much scandal implied by witnesses and locals alike), publishing her story in pamphlet form, and even threatening the Shakers with threats of attacks and fires. I respect her for all that she endured in order to get her children back. She is a strong and resourceful woman who would fought against her times, her husband, and her government to save and protect her children. Unfortunately for Mrs. Eunice Chapman, this is her only redeeming quality. She came across as a crass and two faced woman who played way too dirty at times. Her husband, James, and the Shakers came out looking no better. James was an adulterous alcoholic who squandered away the family's money and status before fleeing the family home in Durham. He tricked his wife in order to kidnap the children. He kept up his drinking and worldly ways long after signing his covenant with the Shakers. The Shakers themselves lied to Mrs. Chapman and the government about James' and the children's whereabouts on several occasions and often left out key pieces of information. Their organization also dealt with gender issues of their own as their leader at the time was Lucy Wright, another strong willed and determined woman whose beliefs and actions were well before her time. The author cannot do much with characters who do not give her much to work with, but the lack of likable characters paired with an often sluggish narrative that gets bogged down in description in places didn't help this book overall. It was in interesting story that took place where I live and I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't tell people to add it to their 'must read' list.

  • Marilyn
    2019-02-11 16:17

    I read this book in less than 3 days, hating to put it down for everyday chores. Part of my interest stems from continuing interest in the Shakers, part from the fact that much of what happened in this nonfiction story occurred within miles of where I grew up and where I live now (latter is about 5 minutes by car from the former Watervliet Shaker community location), and part stems from the fact that this is the story of a strong woman/mother who just couldn't/wouldn't give up on getting her children back. Sometimes it was frustrating reading about various tactics she used but, dammit, she was up against a whole anti-woman society where divorce (in NYS) was just about impossible and too expensive for the likes of Eunice Chapman and child custody was pretty much up to the husband. A few times I thought she was just plain losing it... but in the end it seems she was able to settle into a decent life, albeit never being a friend to the Shakers. I came away from reading this book with a more informed (&cynical) view about Shakers, having learned a few negative aspects of how they functioned. On the other hand, still have lots of respect for much of their accomplishments. They evolved, as we all do, but not nearly enough to keep them from disappearing from the world. Well-written and well-researched. Highly recommended.

  • Karen Benson
    2019-02-06 16:35

    While I really enjoyed learning about the Shakers and while it was really interesting to understand what Eunice Chapman endured while both divorcing her husband and trying to regain custody of her children from the Shaker community, the book sometimes went into "novel" mode which made it entirely too long. Just when you think you are getting close to some important detail, we endure reading about the deep snow, or riding in a buggy along a riverbank in much detail, which to me didn't really add much to the story. At some points it dragged and dragged which at times made it difficult to pick back up to finish.After reading about the Shakers, their way of life, customs and rules, it's easy to see how religious cults have come to be. It's hard to believe that people actually agreed to this way of life and it's easy to see why the Shakers have evaporated.This is actually a good history lesson. I thank Eunice Chapman for having a pair and sticking to her guns.

  • Cindy
    2019-01-25 12:30

    Saw a great review of this book here: was also featured on NPR:

  • Zettie Jones
    2019-02-12 10:11

    Incredible & enlightening story. It's amazing to me how far women's rights have evolved & how hard a mother would have to challenge the right to her own children, to earn a living & a respected place in society .

  • Susan O
    2019-02-04 13:17

    Excellent - Review to come.

  • Victoria
    2019-02-02 15:22

    I absolutely loved reading Eunice Chapman's story! Ilyon Woo has done a remarkable amount of research and it shows on every page. Even the Sources and Acknowledgments after the epilogue were fascinating to me. I found this book while browsing at the library. The title grabbed me for a number of reasons: my interest in utopian societies, my lack of Shaker knowledge, a salacious tale of divorce in the Victorian era, a custody battle from 200 years ago, the chance to imagine Albany as it was in its boom days. My list could go on. I learned much more than I bargained for and come away from the book with complicated opinions about the Shakers, legal practices of the time (most appallingly, civil death of married women), and Eunice herself.Yes, the story is dramatic. Ilyon Woo herself acknowledges that she wrote this piece (for 10 years, even!) with drama in mind. What holds true, though, is the fact that all parties involved, from Eunice to New York lawmakers, to James Chapman, to the Shakers in all of their villages, were overzealous for one reason or another. This gave them each a fatal flaw. That right there is the linchpin of drama.Lastly, what I found most enjoyable and satisfying about the book is the nuance despite all the drama. The author never sides with anyone outright, and that's key. As written, the reader may see when the state is using James Chapman as an example of a good man slandered by his power-hungry, sexpot wife, even as she fights for her children. We may also see that the Shakers valued order and peace above cooperation with any law or sinners, which made keeping the Chapman children an act of God and one that had to be done. I'd highly recommend a thorough reading!

  • Kylie Purdie
    2019-01-19 12:30

    In the early 1800's, Eunice Chapman was just like any other woman - property of her husband, dependent on him for support and access to her children. On the day she returned home and found her husband had taken their three children and gone to live with a religious group known as the Shakers, she decided to fight back.Over 5 years Eunice petitioned legislators (at the time the only way a woman could get a divorce was to prove adultery or have it passed into law), wrote books and harassed the Shakers all with the single minded objective of getting her children back.Woo does not make Chapman out to be a saint. By all accounts, Eunice was not above using whatever tactics she thought would work for her in her fight against the Shakers. However, at that point in time, there were not a lot of options available to women who chose not to follow their husbands and were therefore seen by the law as "civilly dead." This means she was unable to own property, testify against her husband or lay claim to their children.Woo tells the tale of an amazing feminist, who fought for her children and never gave up. A highly recommended read.

  • Gayla Bassham
    2019-02-16 16:32

    If I have a complaint about The Great Divorce, it's that Woo often tells us what Eunice is feeling and thinking without providing citations. In the endnotes, Woo says that "Details about the weather and descriptions of Eunice’s thoughts and moods all originate in period sources. In particular, my discussion of Eunice’s feelings is rooted in her books." But for me that was too little too late. I am wary of projecting our twenty-first century brains onto what a nineteenth-century woman may have been thinking; our worldviews are just so different.Other than that, though, The Great Divorce really is a very good book, as well as a compelling read. (I couldn't put it down in the last half, despite the fact that Woo had already told me what was going to happen hundreds pages earlier. And despite the fact that everyone involved was long-dead.) My preference would have been for a little more analysis and a little more intellectual history. But it is certainly a compelling read, and left me thinking about the women's history on both sides of the legal battle.

  • Huong
    2019-01-18 17:17

    Having to read this book for my AP U.S. History summer assignment, I did not expect much from it, I was pleasantly surprised about the book. Although the book is not pleasant at all when it comes to the plot and what unfold, it's a thought provoking read that made me think about the traditional values of womanhood, motherhood and the things a mother is willing to do for her children who were born from her flesh. Eunice Chapman is a heroine I can't help but admire and detest at the same time. Her ruthlessness (not without a cause) and her willingness to bring down an entire society to get what she wants is frightening. Yet, I can see where she is coming from which makes me want to sympathize with her. She's a character I would love to hate but can't. Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot and I would recommend this book to anyone who despises history (much like I am) because this book will definitely make you fall (a little bit) for the many uncovered mysteries of the past.

  • Katie
    2019-01-19 10:16

    This was a very interesting book. I knew women had few rights in the early part of the 19th century in America, but I don't think it hit me (until I read this book) that once you were married, you were "civilly dead." NO rights at all: no rights to your own children, let alone property, etc.This is the story of one woman's fight to gain custody of her children, after her husband joins the Shakers and takes the children with him. She had quite a struggle, but her persistence paid off and paved the way for women gaining more rights in regards to divorce, children, etc.I skimmed the last few chapters, as I felt like it was quite academic and I got impatient to see the outcome of her case. The last chapter summed everything up nicely.I almost feel like every American girl should read this to be thankful for how far we've come! There are certainly women around the world who still live like this today, and in even worse conditions.

  • Beth Beaulieu
    2019-01-21 15:26

    The story of Eunice Chapman drew me in from the first pages. I have always been interested in the communities of Shakers dotting the New England landscape and have wondered about their history. Through this book I got a more nuanced view of their religious beliefs and the beliefs and morals of people living in New York state at the time. Her experience with the community outside Albany, her efforts to divorce, and gain custody of her children was compelling. In the end the fight in the legislature reminds me so much of how things are decided today. Because she was such a compelling character, she was able to impress upon the legislature something they would have never accepted from other petitioners. While this account is clearly slanted toward Chapman's point of view and her appeal to the legislature, it would be so interesting to read additional accounts of perspectives on the Shakers at that time. Certainly a lot more than furniture!

  • Mary Frances
    2019-01-31 12:26

    This was a very interesting and well-written book about a landmark early 19th century custody dispute between a mother, her husband, and the Shakers. Apparently in the early 1800s the Shakers allowed people (mostly men) to enter their communities with their children even if the other spouse was opposed, and they often hid the children or refused to release them. Men had the right to the kids, to determine the abode, to control the money and to order the wife to comply. In NY, there was almost no way to divorce. This is the story of a determined mother who beat the Shakers, her husband, and finally opponents in the NY legislature to obtain a legislative divorce and the right to her kids and her money. Really fascinating.

  • Margaret Sankey
    2019-01-31 11:13

    Child-snatching Shakers! In 1814, Eunice Chapman's worthless alcoholic husband kidnapped their three children and ran off to be a Shaker. For the next two years, Eunice rallied the press and politicians to get them back, launching a debate over marital law and religious tolerance. Notable for being sympathetic to the reasoning of both sides, while attempting to reconstruct the decision making of the New York Assembly, which couldn't quite work out if they wanted to uphold Federalist patriarchy or use the case to punish a radical religious sect they found unpatriotic in the War of 1812 for their petition for conscientious objector status.

  • Karen
    2019-01-26 14:29

    Surprisingly easy and sort of juicy reading (once you get past the first chapter and sink in). Woo explains the politics and religion of the time on a need-to-know basis, which makes understanding the context of the times easier. There are some suggestions of salaciousness at the beginning, but the speculation is rarely brought up later in the book or dwelt upon with any depth; the author stick firmly with fact. All the legislative maneuvers and letter-writing smack-downs and threatened mobs shouldn't have been as compelling as Woo managed to make it. Woo doesn't make it clear whether a partially divorced woman is civilly dead or not, but it's a minor quibble.

  • Jeanne Gehret
    2019-02-08 18:18

    A compelling true story that shows me what Susan B. and her friends worked so hard to eradicate. This one woman brought the powers of heaven and earth to bear to get her children back in an era when woman didn't even have the right to her own body, much less her children. I have always admired the Shakers, but this book showed a dark side of them that I had never considered. Also gave a snapshot of Mother Lee, who founded the Shakers in the face of heartbreaking hardships. Not an easy read because it was such an ugly tale (although ultimately victorious) and it was a little tedious in places. Apparently well-researched.

  • Catherine
    2019-02-07 12:19

    This book tells the story of Eunice Chapman, whose husband joined the Shakers in the early 1800s, taking their children with him. At a time when women, especially married women, had virtually no rights, she set about trying to divorce her husband and obtain custody of her children (interestingly, through the NY state legislature rather than the courts). The legal process and final determination are fascinating, the research conducted to write this book is remarkable, and all of it is enhanced by the historical context the author provides.

  • David Ward
    2019-02-09 14:10

    The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times by Ilyon Woo(2011 Grove Press) (HQ835N7) is an interesting story in which a little-known 19th-century American religious sect played a major role. The Shaker community is the backdrop against which this morality play takes place; while the strangeness of this community is highlighted, the story unltimately demonstrates that human nature is little changed from that time to ours. My rating: 3/10; DNF. Finished 2/10/11.

  • Eva
    2019-01-24 10:22

    This is an amazing book -- factual but read like a novel -- about an amazing woman, Eunice Hawley Chapman (born 1778). Her husband John joined the Shakers and took their three children with them. Eunice fought in the New York legislature and, literally, in the streets to gain custody of her children. As the book illustrates, American women in 1700s/1800s became "civily dead" when they married. They had no rights to property and no right to custody of their children. And this book shows the dark side of those sweet, furniture-making Shakers.

  • Judy
    2019-02-10 17:10

    I have been interested in the Shakers and visited some of their villages, now museums, which focus on the positive aspects of their religion and communal living. This book told another side of their story. Eunice Chapman's husband took their children and joined the Shakers. Against formidible odds, Eunice got the NY State Legislature to pass a bill, giving her a divorce and enabling her to retrieve her three children. Author has done extensive research on Eunice's story and the local, Albany and environs.

  • Pam
    2019-02-15 11:39

    This absolutely incredible book by Ilyon Woo is about Eunice Chapman, who fought to get her children back from the Shaker community in the early 1800s after her alcoholic husband had joined the group with their children. This book presents not only the story of Eunice Chapman, but also addresses the legal standing of women and Eunice's ability to mobilize political and cultural forces against the Shaker community. It is a must read for anyone interested in American history, the Shakers and women's studies.

  • Amy Roehl
    2019-01-28 17:33

    I enjoyed this book, especially learning about the beginnings of New York's seemingly forever dysfunctional legislature. At times I found the unending details a bit much and really just wanted to know how this remarkable woman accomplished the unthinkable during that time period. I found the epilogue almost more interesting than the rest of the book and would have enjoyed to learn more about the family post-Shaker (assuming those details could be found). Overall, an enjoyable read about a fascinating woman and her pursuit for her children.

  • BE Lauriette
    2019-02-07 14:28

    I've been going through a very painful divorce, along with a custody battle so I may be bias about this book. I found it so informative concerning the early days of marriage laws and how religion plays a part in our society. Loved this book.. and needed it too. I am not alone.. even though our struggles are slightly different and separated by many years. It was somewhat hard to read this book at times, but my determination in needing to know how she battled through the hard times, got me through.

  • Ingrid
    2019-01-27 12:37

    I always thought of the Shakers in terms of long past Utopian communities and great design. This story opened my eyes to the reality of what was in many ways a cult. As I read this book, the review of the appalling lack of womens' rights in the early days of this country made me angry. This is a well-written non-fiction book that covers an important time in American social and political history.

  • Alice
    2019-01-16 14:14

    Wow - I learned a lot more than I ever knew about Shakers (which was, admittedly, not much). But, mostly, this book was about the absolute rights of men over women in 19th century America. As a divorced woman with a child, the reality of life at the time terrified me. Women were the property of their husbands and had no rights at all to their children - a truly chilling scenario. Things aren't perfect now, but we sure have come a long way.

  • Julianne G Cockey
    2019-01-18 16:20

    Amazing Story An extremely well written, organized, history about Eunice Chapman, her fight to regain her children from her husband, the Shakers, and the legal battles she endured in 1815 New York. I never knew anything about her or the religious sect until reading this book. It is non fiction, but I read it as enthralled as with the best mystery, I could not put it down. At the end the author provides excellent references and resources.

  • Brianna Audrey Wright
    2019-01-27 13:22

    I had originally checked this book out for research on a story I'm currently writing regarding divorce. I enjoyed the story and the history behind it...but I couldn't get through it. One moment I was too annoyed with the "Holy" behavior of the Shaker community and the next I was too annoyed at the unnecessary random details that didn't apply to the story. Skimmed through and read the last few chapters and finally I just gave up altogether.

  • Naomi Blackburn
    2019-01-20 17:25

    I cannot believe the story behind this book. Someone had recommended the book for me and I did a half-hearted "alright" when I saw it on our library shelves. The author has done a fantastic job weaving the story that absolutely breaks your heart on multiple levels...There is alot I would like to go into, but no spoilers here!I have been lucky enough to read several books this month where I wished the author would do a Q&A session on GR..this is def. one of those books!

  • Bonnie
    2019-01-19 13:34

    A true story of a mother's crusade to regain custody of her children. In the early 1800's, children were considered the property of the husband, as was his wife. This book chronicles a woman's fight to get her children back when her husband decides to join the Shaker community. Her fight takes her to the legislature of New York. The book is a terrific history of women's rights in the post-Revoluton era.