It's 1937, and much of the United States is still firmly in the grip of the Depression. Times are hard, and emotions are high, especially in the small community of Languor, Kentucky. People are tired of doing without, and they need a scapegoat to help them feel better. When people with ulterior motives and carefully planned agendas come to town, they play people's fears like a well-tuned orchestra.
As a result, ominous things begin to happen in the Shaker community of North Homage. A sister suffers a mysterious head wound, a sackful of rats is set loose in the schoolhouse, food is stolen, buildings are defaced, and hate-filled messages point to a very real threat of violence. It is up to Sister Rose Callahan to set everything straight, and the new eldress of the community begins to find clues in the journals of her predecessor. The threats come from within North Homage and from without, and they combine both old and new secrets. With that threat of violence hanging over the peaceful religious community, Sister Rose must work fast.
The trouble with reading so many series is the fact that some are bound to fall by the wayside. Before I began my book blog, I read the first Sister Rose Callahan mystery, Death of a Winter Shaker, and I really enjoyed it. As a teenager, I once visited the Shaker community of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, and learned how fascinating the Shakers were. Besides their gorgeous furniture, they were quite innovative in architecture, interior design, agriculture, and labor-saving devices. Since they were celibate, their communities depended on converts and orphans to survive and thrive. Woodworth's series is set when most Shaker villages had died out. The first book took up the topic of "winter Shakers"-- those homeless people who would convert to Shakerism during the winter so they would have food, clothing, and shelter, only to leave when spring came. This second book focuses on intolerance, a theme that is very pertinent today.
Sister Rose Callahan is a woman who was brought up as a Shaker but lived out in the world for a short period of time, so she's more than capable of dealing with non-believers. But with the shortage of members, she's had to assume the role of eldress-- caring for the spiritual health of the female members of the community-- as well as trustee-- the person who takes care of the financial side of things. This wouldn't be an easy task for anyone, but it's particularly tough for Sister Rose, since Elder Wilhelm is a thorn in her side, constantly harping about the good old days and completely unwilling to deal with the problems of the present in any real meaningful way.
As in the first book, A Deadly Shaker Spring has a marvelous sense of place and culture. You really don't need to know a thing about the Shakers to understand what's going on. If you do know about them-- like I do-- your knowledge will be enhanced. Since readers will know the person (or persons) responsible, this mystery isn't a whodunit, but a whydunit, and although I did find one character's conversion at the end to be too quick to be completely believable, I still found this to be an excellent read. Even after more than ten years between reading the first book and the second, I immediately fell back in with the characters, and that, to me, is a sign of how good Deborah Woodworth's writing is. I'm glad I have all the books in the series waiting for me. They are "reading money" in the bank.
A Deadly Shaker Spring by Deborah Woodworth
Avon Books © 1998
Mass Market Paperback, 304 pages
Historical Mystery, #2 Sister Rose Callahan mystery
Source: Purchased from Alibris.