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

On Aug. 15, 2010, New York took a giant leap into the 20th century when Gov. David Paterson signed a no-fault divorce bill into law. The last state in the entire country to enact no-fault divorce, New York has historically been strict about granting the legal dissolution of marriage. Adultery was the only grounds for divorce in the state until 1966, when the statute was rewritten to include reasons most people take for granted: abuse, cruelty, and abandonment.

Ilyon Woo’s debut book is perfectly timed for the zeitgeist. Woo weaves a tale of high drama, religious extremism, legal battles, scandalous allegations, and midnight raids carried out on behalf of tiny, ferocious Eunice Chapman, who was a woman ahead of her time. Chapman was willing to fight tooth and nail in a very public way—first for a divorce from a philandering alcoholic husband who abandoned her and then for custody of her three children, who were taken by her husband after he had a religious conversion and went to live in a Shaker village near Albany. It was 1814, and respectable women didn’t lobby for themselves. Married women were, in fact, considered legally dead, their identity subsumed by their husband’s. They couldn’t work, sign contracts, or own property, and—contrary to today’s custody laws, which tend to favor the mother—they had no legal rights to their children in the event of a dispute with the father. It was also a time when indenturing one’s children to strangers was common, and fundamentalist religious sects could represent safe haven from abuse or homelessness.

Historical nonfiction is often bogged down in the details, the prose a mess of years and statistics, but The Great Divorce is vivid and evocative, full of informed conclusions, with a well-executed dramatic arc. Though modern sympathy lies with Eunice, Woo doesn’t force the reader to root for her at the expense of the Shakers. She acknowledges, for instance, that though James Chapman hid his children from their mother inside a closed religious sect, he was acting well within his legal rights, and the Shakers were known for their clean, orderly communities; devotion to faith and values; and fine workmanship in furniture and crafts. That they were a sect whose members maintained celibacy and adhered to rigidly enforced gender roles is balanced by the knowledge that the society’s elders weren’t too keen on accepting children without the conversion or explicit permission of both parents. Eunice Chapman is a character for the ages—complex, astute, arresting—and Woo gives her plenty of room to reveal herself. Was she a determined woman, fighting for what she believed was right? Or was she emotionally disturbed, selfish, with an obsessive need to win? Was she painted as a borderline personality in her time because she didn’t seem to care that she wasn’t supposed to behave as though she deserved rights? She fought a three-year battle with the New York Legislature largely on her own, using all the tools available to her. Her story earns a place in the history of women’s rights and the history of public frenzy over social mores, a frenzy that rages on today. 

Atlantic Monthly Press, 404 pages

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 09/10/2010