Imperfections: A Novel

Imperfections: A Novel

by Lynda Durrant

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As the Civil War looms, a teenager finds refuge from her abusive father in a Shaker community in this “lovely and thought-provoking” novel (Kirkus Reviews).
Rosemary Elizabeth likes Pleasant Hill. Unlike her former home, the Kentucky Shaker community is serene and full of beautiful things. The food is plentiful and delicious, and she dresses in spotless white garments. Above all, she and her younger siblings are now safe from their drunken, often violent, father, and from the war between the Union and the Confederacy, which is said to be drawing closer every day.
Perfection is the goal at Pleasant Hill, and Rosemary Elizabeth vows to be perfect so she’ll be allowed to stay. As time passes, however, she finds herself more and more at odds with the Shaker path, the rules that are supposed to govern everything she says and does and even what she dreams. If she eliminates all the imperfections the Shakers find in her, will anything remain?
“Built around a historical incident—a visit by the soldiers of Morgan’s Raiders to Pleasant Hill in 1862—this fine coming-of-age novel rewards readers with an unusual glimpse into a rarely portrayed religion as well as a different perspective on the Civil War.” —Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547563206
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 12/29/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 188
Sales rank: 580,901
File size: 527 KB
Age Range: 10 - 11 Years

About the Author

Lynda Durrant is the author of five well-received historical novels for Clarion, several of which have been named to state children’s choice awards lists. She lives in Bath, Ohio, with her family and a horse named Irish.

Read an Excerpt

“When will we see home again, Rosemary Elizabeth?” Isaac’s question pipes through the half-light of dawn, and not for the first time, either.

I’m about to say “Stop asking me what I can’t answer” when the oxcart’s right axle dips into a rut on the Harrodsburg Pike. Ma dips with it, as yielding as a rag doll. Baby Anne, in her arms, wakes with a wail.

“Hush, now,” Ma says. She shifts Baby Anne to her left arm. Baby Anne doesn’t stop wailing. Except for my sister’s cries and the squeaky axle, all is absolutely silent.

The sunrise sheds reddish light on Ma’s sad, bruised face.

Mr. Godfrey is fetching us up the Harrodsburg Pike to Pleasant Hill. We’re to find refuge there among the Shakers. The Shakertowns in New York, New England, Kentucky, and Ohio take in all comers, or so we’ve heard.

Mr. Godfrey told us the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill has been in Kentucky since before the War of 1812. That’s two wars ago, I reckon. Maybe more.

“I don’t know when we’ll see home again, Isaac,” I say. Maybe we’ll never see Pa again, and at this moment that feels like a blessing. “We left Lucy and her kittens.” Isaac turns toward Ma, his eyes as sad as hers. “Can we please go back for Lucy and her kittens?” “Don’t you worry about Lucy and her kittens, Isaac,” Mr. Godfrey replies. “As soon as I’ve taken my butter, milk, and cheese into Lexington, I’ll go to your place and fetch them. They’ll be warm in my main barn, and there’re lots of mice. They’ll do just fine.” “Thank you, Mr. Godfrey,” Ma says softly.
“You’re well rid of him,” Mr. Godfrey says, softer still, although not so soft that I don’t hear him. He leans toward Ma. She says nothing.
“From the frying pan into the fire, in my opinion,” Mr. Godfrey continues with a frown. “The Shakers believe in separateness, Mrs. Lipking. Wife separated from husband, sister separated from brother, mother separated from child. Any fool can see that’s not God’s plan. Mark my words: Those Shakers won’t last another generation.”

“Ma, I’ll be separated from you?” Isaac’s eyes turn bright in panic.

“Nonsense, Isaac.” Ma cups my brother’s face with her left hand. “We’ll be together and safe, every day for the rest of our lives.” She draws Baby Anne closer to her as the early-spring wind blows cold over the Harrodsburg Pike. “Ma, you’ll be separated from Pa?” I ask softly. “The Shakers will keep us safe?”

Ma doesn’t answer.

We ride in silence. I think my own thoughts, as does everyone else, I reckon. I think about Lucy, our sleek black cat, and her fuzzy kittens. Every morning I’d pour some of Mr. Godfrey’s new milk into an old pie tin. When I approached her, Lucy would lift her head. As her purring kittens kneaded her belly, Lucy licked the new milk daintily. Mr. Godfrey is a kind man, but he will never think to give Lucy new milk still warm from the cow, as we did.

In the weak winter sunshine, northeast Kentucky’s hills and dales rise and fall before us. As far into the distance as I can see, each blue hill is a shade lighter than the one before it. Ma once told me there’s a Cherokee word for that: cataloochee. It means unfolding hills, hollows, and mountains, the last one dissolving into sky.

Sloping pastureland on both sides of the Harrodsburg Pike is chock-a-block with cows and horses. Foals and calves cleave to their mothers just as we cleave to Ma.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Pleasant Hill Shakers. They sell brooms, packages of seeds, furniture, applesauce, wooden rakes, lemonade syrup, butter and cheese, homespun cloth, shawls, bonnets, and yarn. Their medicinal herb remedies actually cure a body. Everything Shaker is finely made. Everything Shaker is of the highest quality.

Everything Shaker is perfect. Or so Mrs. Godfrey says.

Mr. Godfrey gives the reins a shake. His horse doesn’t break stride as we ascend over a hill. “There’s confession, communality, and celibacy —known as the three Cs. Men and women live on opposite sides of everything, like a monastery. Popery right here in northern Kentucky! And they shake as they worship. They quake like beech leaves in a high wind. They roll on the floor. They shriek and holler out their own songs. And all at once, too.”

He winces. “The pagan and the Popish—from the frying pan into the fire, if you ask me.” Ma straightens up and shifts Baby Anne to her right arm again. I can almost hear her saying “Nobody asked you.” Baby Anne whimpers. Finally, the rocking of the oxcart lulls her to sleep.

The three Cs, I think. Confession, communality, and celi-bacy. All I can think about now is a safe place to live. I’ll worry about all that later.

It’s late morning when we reach Pleasant Hill. We pass through a whitewashed gate with well- tended whitewaaaaashed double fencing all round. You can always tell the quality of a farm by the quality of its fence; every Kentuckian knows that. This one is a plain and simple split rail, with not a weed in sight underneath the rails or around the fence posts.

In the Shaker pastures, fat short-horned cattle, horses, and sheep safely graze. The fields abound with livestock; each mother has a healthy calf, foal, or lamb, sometimes twins. Pleasant Hill looks placid, peaceful, and safe. Living here will be good for the Lipkings, I think. Pa will never think to look for us here.

Mr. Godfrey calls out to the first person we see, “Where to take a new family, ma’am?”

The woman, dressed all in white, walks on without glancing in his direction. She doesn’t even break her stride.

“Separate, Mr. Godfrey, separate,” Ma says. She hands Baby Anne to me, leaps off the wagon, and calls out, “We’ve come to Pleasant Hill to seek refuge, ma’am—myself and my three children.”

The woman immediately stops and turns to face her. “Yea. You’ll need to go to the Trustee’s Office; it’s that brick building on the right of the lane, next to the Ministry Workshop. Welcome to Sinai’s Holy Plain. Welcome to Heaven on Earth.”

With a grunt, Mr. Godfrey helps Ma climb back into the oxcart. “From the frying pan into the fire,” he repeats. “I won’t leave Pleasant Hill until I’m sure you’re safe.”

The Trustee’s Office is a large brick building, as plain as unbuttered brown bread except for above the double doors. The narrow windows in the casements reach out like sunbeams, the curved glass cut perfectly to size; they’re like footprints in the snow.

It’s the inside that makes me gasp. The hall floor is painted bright blue—as blue as the summer sky. The walls and ceiling are buttercup yellow. Blue rag rugs mark where we are to place our feet, like flagstones in a sunny garden. The hall is completely empty of furniture, just blue floors, yellow walls, and small blue rugs.

Yellow is a happy color, and blue is serene. Isaac smiles at me. I know what he’s thinking: We’re going to like it here at Pleasant Hill. The twin spiral staircases in the hall are a wonder.

The railings and stairs seem to float upward, like curls of smoke.

An older woman approaches us briskly. “I’m Eldress Mary.” She stands in the doorway and gracefully unfolds one arm toward the dining room. “Welcome to Sinai’s Holy Plain. Welcome to Heaven on Earth.”

Ma smiles. “I’m Mrs. Elizabeth Lipking. These are my three children. I’m hoping you’ll take us in.”

While Eldress Mary takes us in, I take her in. She must be a New England Shaker: straight- backed and steady-eyed, she’s no coy Southern belle. She’s dressed head to foot in white. A large white kerchief is tied around her shoulders. Her hair is completely covered by a white bonnet. Her gesturing arm is so elegant, like a dancer’s.

She speaks with crisp authority. “You and your children must be famished, Mrs. Lipking. Please sit down in the Elders’ Dining Room. The sisters will bring you an early nooning.”

She leads us toward the back of the spacious dining room. On the way we pass entrances to two large rooms crowded with chairs. “Those are the Sisters’ and Brethren’s Waiting Rooms,” Eldress Mary tells us.

“What are they waiting for?” Isaac asks. I twist his ear to hush him.

The dining hall is huge, and painted in buttercup yellow and summer-sky blue. Twenty-eight tables with ten chairs apiece—two hundred eighty people eat here.

Eldress Mary guides us to the right, to a small alcove off the dining hall. We sit down on Shaker chairs at a plain, spotless table of honey-colored pine. I’ve seen chairs like these in Harrodsburg’s dry-goods stores. They’re straight ladder-backs with woven tape seats. The blue and yellow tapes are an ever-so- slightly darker blue and yellow than the walls and ceiling.

A butter-yellow daffodil stands at attention in a slim blue vase.

Mr. Godfrey shuffles his feet impatiently. “You may sit,” Eldress Mary says. After Ma sits down, we all take seats around her. “This room is clean,” she says admiringly. Two Shaker sisters walk in with trays of food and crockery and then leave us. We eat cornbread soaked in cream, warm and chunky applesauce, and sweet pickled fruit. There’s a peculiar-tasting herbal tea to drink—slightly sweet, slightly smoky, more bracing than calming. The tea tastes like spring.

The food is good, plenty, plain, and simple. It tastes as clean and airy-bright as the room— like eating a daffodil, I think. We eat our fill. I don’t remember the last time I ate my fill. We eat and eat. Even Mr. Godfrey eats as though starving.

Eldress Mary appears again.

“Your children must be tired, Mrs. Lipking,” she says briskly. “They’ll join the Children’s Order within the Center Family to sleep as angels.” Angels?

In haste, a broad-shouldered young man steps from the left door frame, as though he’s been waiting for a sign from Eldress Mary. Above the summer-sky-blue floor, his dark shirt and pants hover like a thundercloud.

“Brother John will take your boy to the boys’ side of the Center Family dwelling. He’ll bathe, clothe himself as an angel, and sleep in his own bed.”

“This is Isaac Carl Lipking,” Ma says to Brother John.

Brother John turns his head slightly toward Ma. He doesn’t speak to her. “Come with me, Brother Isaac.” His voice is soft and low.
“Go with Brother John,” Ma says.

Ma holds Isaac and whispers in his ear. He rubs his eyes with the back of a dirty hand. His hand comes away wet, streaked in tears. Brother John leads my brother away.

A woman appears in the right doorway.

“This is Sister Emily,” Eldress Mary says. “She’ll take your daughter to the girls’ side of the Center Family dwelling. There she’ll bathe, clothe herself as an angel, and sleep in her own bed.”

“The girls’ side! I thought I’d stay with Ma,” I protest.

“Rosemary Elizabeth, no trouble now,” Ma says firmly. “You’re almost fifteen. Do exactly what the Shakers want and we’ll all be safe here.” Mr. Godfrey leans back in his chair and looks at me. “What did I tell you, girl? It’s a monastery, nunnery, and boarding school combined.” Sister Emily pays no mind to Mr. Godfrey. “Thee will see your mother after thee has slept. I promise thee. Thee will see your mother every day.”

“What’s going to happen to Pa?” I’ve been waiting for hours to ask that question. Despite all the misery he’s caused, my heart is pounding. Mr. Godfrey, please don’t tell Pa you left us here.

Mr. Godfrey stands and steps away from the table. Bits of cow manure and dried mud fall off his boots and powder into a mottled ring around him. Eldress Mary and Sister Emily stare at the floor in alarm.

“I won’t be keeping him on,” he announces, as though he’s a king delivering a royal decree. “Your mother did all his work and hers as well.” An uneasy silence fills the room. Ma’s eyes brim with tears. Mr. Godfrey shuffles his feet in embarrassment. More dirt powders from his boots onto the shiny blue floor.

“The missus and I will miss you, Mrs. Lipking.”

“He wasn’t always like this,” Ma whispers.

“I believe you,” Mr. Godfrey replies. “You wouldn’t have married him otherwise.

Moonshine and bourbon are terrible things for a man without the head or the will for them.” Ma and I exchange glances. We are used to keeping the real Pa a secret.

Mr. Godfrey continues. “Carl Lipking can join the army. Both the Union and the Confederates are looking for men who can shoot; either one will gladly take him. He’s a deadeye—I’ll give him that. He wouldn’t be a Kentuckian if he couldn’t shoot.”

He sweeps his hat toward Eldress Mary and Sister Emily. “Ladies.”

This is the signal for the ladies to fuss over a departing man. They’ll ask to be remembered and try to press onto him a sweet, or a letter, or a ribbon, or some token of their esteem and affection. The man will bow and kiss the backs of the ladies’ hands and declare how pleasant their hospitality was and how fondly it’ll be remembered. I’ve witnessed such pleasantries whenever there have been guests at the Godfreys’ home. We’ll be fine; this still is Kentucky, after all.

Even so, Eldress Mary and Sister Emily flee silently out the right doorway of the dining room. Mr. Godfrey eases his thumbs behind his suspenders and laughs as loudly as a braying mule, certainly loudly enough for the Shaker women to hear.

Ma does fuss over him. She tells him that she can’t thank him enough and what a pleasure it’s been serving him and Mrs. Godfrey. Mr. Godfrey bows, kisses her hand, and says he wishes he could do more for us. Ma assures him that he’s done more than enough. She asks to be remembered to Mrs. Godfrey.

“You and your delightful children will be missed, Mrs. Lipking.”

Ma blushes and says, “Oh, hush now.”

“I won’t breathe a word as to your whereabouts.” Sunshine glides through the clean windows and catches Mr. Godfrey in a splash of light. I notice how old he is: grizzled hair and beard, stooped shoulders, wrinkled face, missing teeth, trembling hands. With a bow, he stomps out of the blue-and-yellow dining room, leaving a trail of dried muck behind him.

The instant he leaves, Sister Emily rushes back, broom and dustpan in hand. She sweeps up Mr. Godfrey’s boot leavings quickly and thoroughly. “As Mother Lee has said, ‘There is no dirt in Heaven,’” she remarks, and smiles at me kindly.

“When will I see Ma again?”

“Thee will be reunited with your mother at the evening meal,” Sister Emily says. She turns to me. “I’ll take thee to the Center Family dwelling now.”

Ma gives me an abrupt hug. “Mind the sisters. Be good, you hear?”

“The Center Family lives in the center of Pleasant Hill,” Sister Emily announces as she leads me across the lane to a four-storied brick building. Plain but well-made shops and sheds are all around us. Each building has two sets of porches, two sets of doors, two sets of stairs, two sets of outdoor benches, and two flower gardens.

“Why do you have two of everything?”

Sister Emily smiles at me. “As Mother Ann Lee has said, ‘The only hope of salvation is separation of the sexes.’ We’re to seek perfection if we’re to live as Heaven on Earth.” “Separation of the sexes? But weren’t Adam and Eve before the Fall perfection on Earth?” I ask. “‘Sleep on, blest pair.’ That’s from Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

Sister Emily looks startled. She shakes her head. “Thee has been reading the books of the world’s people.”

“Do you mean,” I say slowly, “men and women, boys and girls, don’t even talk to each other? Use the same doorway? That’s what Shaker separation means?”

“Yea.” Sister Emily points to the right. “There are five families at Pleasant Hill. On the east side is the East Family. Our livestock belong to the East Family.” She points left. “On the west side is the West Family. The West Family owns the corn and other crops. To the west of the West Family is the West Lot Family. They own the mill.”

My head is spinning. I can’t talk to Isaac? Isaac can’t talk to Ma?

She points northeast. “The North Family is down the hill toward the river. They own the quarry. The children live with the Center Family, right here in the center of Pleasant Hill.”

My next question just pops out. “Where . . . where did that daffodil come from, the one in the dining room? It’s too early for daffodils.”

Sister Emily smiles and points to the right. “The East Family has a greenhouse—a building made of glass. It stays warm all winter, so we may grow flowers for special occasions. Mother Ann Lee dearly loved flowers. ‘Consider the lilies of the field.’ God takes care of all of us.” “Our arrival was a special occasion? That daffodil was for us?”

“Of course! Welcome to Pleasant Hill. Welcome to Heaven on Earth.”

The Center Family dwelling is really more like a barn: huge, tall, with a sloping roof. We go through the right-hand door and take the right staircase to the second floor. There are two rooms, each with three beds. Sister Emily smiles again. “This is the girls’ side, and your retiring room to share with two other girls in the Children’s Order.”

Again the walls are buttercup yellow, but here the floors are not painted. They’re made of white pine, just like the dining table where we ate. The honey scent of beeswax rises from the floors. There is not a spot of dirt anywhere. Even the windows are as clean as air.

“Everything’s so clean,” I say. “How pleasant it must be, to live amid such cleanliness.” Our dirt-floor cabin wasn’t tidy—it was dark and smoky—but Ma did her best.

Sister Emily beams. “As Mother Ann Lee has said—”

“‘there is no dirt in Heaven,’” I chime in. Sister Emily gives me a peculiar look—half proud that I remembered, half annoyed that she didn’t get to repeat it herself.

I smile at her, hoping to make amends. “That’s a good saying. I’ll have to remember it.”

“This is Sister Agnetha. She is responsible for the school sisters.”

A large, broad-shouldered woman fills the doorway. Unlike Sister Emily and Eldress Mary, she needs two kerchiefs to reach across her wide shoulders and thick upper arms.

Sister Agnetha smiles, but her tiny black eyes don’t shine friendly.

“This is your bed,” she says in a deep voice. Sister Emily has vanished. Where did she go? Shakers appear and disappear so quickly. In front of each bed is a rug. Beside each bed is a nightstand, and at the foot of each bed is a chair. All along the walls, within easy reach, are strips of wood with pegs drilled in every twelve inches or so. On some pegs hang chairs and brooms; others hold white dresses, caps, sunbonnets, aprons, and stockings, each more snowy white than the last.

“You’re to clothe yourself as an angel to sleep as one. But first”—here Sister Agnetha points to a dry sink and water pitcher—“wash your hands, face, and neck.”

The Shaker soap smells like daffodils. It feels good to be clean after the dust from the road. The linen towel is embroidered with peach- colored roses and smells like lavender and lemons.

Sister Agnetha hands me a long nightgown, perfectly clean and perfectly white. Rather stiffly, she turns her back. I undress quickly and put it on.

“Kneel by your bed and give thanks for all you’ve been given. Only then may you sleep. Believers sleep flat on their backs with their hands crossed in front, like an angel at rest. Someone will wake you in a few hours.” The little white rug by my bed has an angel crocheted upon it. My knees settle into cuplike depressions on the angel’s wings. Others have prayed on this rug. How many sets of knees? And for how many hours?

I kneel and turn my face up to Sister Agnetha. “My brother is only eight years old. Ma and I have to talk to him.”

“You’re winter Shakers,” she says gruffly. “You may talk to him as you wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.”

“What’s a winter Shaker?” I say to Sister Agnetha’s back as she leaves.

The bedclothes, pillowcases, and blankets are snow white and smell of lavender and lemons, just like the towel. And clean, so clean. I sink into them with pleasure.

I wonder where Ma and Baby Anne are sleeping. Does Isaac feel safe? A tiny nudge of alarm pokes my stomach.

Then I roll into a snug ball between warm clouds of lavender-and-lemon-scented bedclothes. My last thoughts are of the daffodil. How did it get to the table so quickly? How did someone know we would be eating there? And how did the food arrive so quickly? The butter-yellow daffodil was so welcoming, so inviting with its promise of spring.

Maybe Pleasant Hill really is Heaven on Earth.

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