Sister Rose Callahan
(creator: Deborah Woodworth)

Deborah Woodworth
Sister Rose Callahan is 35 when we first meet her. She has a "pale, lightly freckled face" and "curly red hair", a few tendrils of which (as we are repeatedly told) are apt to escape from her white cotton cap. "Her hair was her sole point of beauty and the one conceit she had been unable to release." At the start, she is the one remaining trustee whose responsibility it is to to direct the business affairs of the North Homage Shaker Village in the county of Languor, Kentucky. (The author explains that the village is a figment of her imagination as by 1936 "no Shaker villages remained in Kentucky, or anywhere else outside the northeastern United States. By 1996 "only one small Shaker community survives, Sabbath-day Lake, near Poland Springs, Maine.")

Rose "loved being a trustee, enjoyed watching over the day-to-day existence of her community, keeping the books, doing business with the world. It suited her .... Having grown up with the Shakers, she had left at eighteen to spend a year in the world. She had even fallen in love and had planned to marry. When she looked back, she reflected that "their time together had been so brief, less than a year, and they were both only eighteen .... But she'd felt a powerful call to return. She signed the covenant, pledging all that she owned and all that she was to the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. Her talents and experiences soon brought her the job of trustee. He had been her first and only human love. Now the Society was her love. She had made the right choice, she knew that. But there were moments ...."

She becomes Eldress, and gets on well with practically everyone, except for dour Elder Wilhelm who complains about her "eagerness to meddle in the world" and "clear lack of humility" and tells her, "I should relieve thee now of thy duties".
But, this is not something he can do, and, being a determined woman, she can stand up for herself. "I am not your servant." she tells him. She is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Deborah Woodworth (1949- ) spent her childhood in southern Ohio near the abandoned sites of several Shaker villages. Before turning to writing, she earned a PhD. in Sociology of Religion and spent a decade conducting research and teaching. Apart from the six Shaker novels, she also wrote short stories and four biographies. She has now completed the first book on a new series . She is married and lives in New Brighton, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities.

Death of a Winter Shaker (1997)
Death of a Winter Shaker
is set in a Shaker settlement in Kentucky in 1936. The peaceful Shakers, pledged to hard work, worship and non-violence, could hardly believe that there was a dead body in their herb house. The handsome young drifter known as a "Winter Shaker" had professed to be a Believer to find refuge from the cold and the depression. Now he was murdered.

Sister Rose Callahan, with her practical knowledge and (some) worldly experience, is assigned to find the culprit - even if it means discovering that one of their own is the killer. Suspects include Elder Wilhelm Lundel, a grim old man who does not approve of Rose, but dreams of restoring the Shakers to their long distant days of strength and glory; Sister Elsa Pike, a rough hill-country woman, with spiritual aspirations that earn Wilhelm's approval, but a shady past; Seth Pike, Elsa's son who turns out to be the man who had had a brief love affair withn Rose before she had become a Shaker 17 years before; Molly Ferguson who has a mysterious supply of things a Shaker girl should not own, such as lipstick, perfume and face powder.

The strength of the book lies in its affectionately described Shaker background. The details are interesting. Extreme forms of the Shaker dancing have been replaced by "structured dances the Shakers developed soon after the early years of wild dancing worship". The Meetinghouse has separate doors for men and women, so as to avoid all possibility of them brushing against each other. There was "a second-floor observation room. From a small window in this room, the Ministry - the elders and eldresses - kept an eye on Believers and outside guests during a worship service", so nothing untoward could happen.

As Rose explains to the police chief, "Elder Wilhelm feels that our behavior has been too loose in recent years. At times, sisters and brethren have laughed and talked together right in the street. Now we must save our conversations for the Thursday-night Union Meeting. We have monitors who keep an eye on them and guard against special looks between men and women ...." Despite their belief in the equality of the sexes, "Shakers divided work according to gender, with women performing domestic tasks. It was far more important, they felt, to keep the sexes separate, and if they worked together, anything could happen. During the harvest, though, men and women often worked side by side." With sex prohibited, it is no wonder that numbers had fallen from 200 to 30. There were few converts, and girls, who would once have been left for Shakers to look after, were now sent to orphanages.

The basic plot is slight, but. Sister Rose makes a convincing and interesting detective.

A Deadly Shaker Spring (1998)
A Deadly Shaker Spring
is set in 1937 in the Shaker village of North Homage. A sister suffers a mysterious wound to the head, a sackful of rats are set loose in the schoolroom, and hate-filled articles appear in the local press, describing the Shakers as "a scourge, a tumor that must be sliced from our side".

Sister Rose, recently made Eldress despite her youth, seeks clues in old journals. She discovers a shocking similarity to outrages perpetrated years before, as well as a scandalous secret about a present-day sister. Old Sister Agatha, the previous Eldress, who had shown her the journals, has had a series of strokes, and is too ill to talk. (Indeed she is only still alive because the book's editor understandably liked her in the previous book, and told the author not to kill her off!)

Brother Wilhelm is growing just slightly less hostile to Rose, but is still struggling desperately to "revitalize the declining society" by looking backwards and reverting to the the old-fashioned speech of earlier Shakers, using "thou" and "thy". He has had to accept Rose as Eldress, but would like to see her abandon her old role as trustee, looking after the community's business affairs. She, on the other hand, is in no hurry to give this up. "Rose believed that Shakers and the world could live in harmony. Wilhelm did not." But both venerated the memory of Mother Ann, who had founded the Society which had broken away from the Quakers in late eighteenth century England, and who, they believed, was still watching over them.

But now there are only 29 adults and 9 children left to meet for worship "in a room that used to hold two hundred Believers, in addition to dozens of children and countless guests from the world." In those days "many Believers had begun their journey to faith with a visit to the Sabbathday service, where they intended to jeer and mock but instead found themselves entranced by the joy of singing and dancing." But now, because of all the threats, Wilhelm and Rose have been forced to close the service to the public.

After one of the brothers is found dead, the story builds up to a gripping climax when it looks as though the whole village is coming under attack. Rose is almost smothered on one occasion, and has to fight for her life on another. Admittedly, it does not seem very likely that all the hatred and violence that develops could have been stirred up just by a few newspaper aricles/hand-outs, but Rose is nothing if not resourceful and enlists Deputy Grady O'Neal's help. It just needs a few shrewd suggestions from her to put him on the right track.

Sins of a Shaker Summer (1999)
Sins of a Shaker Summer
starts with two little girls eating what seem to have been poisonous plants. They both become seriously ill. Sister Rose Callahan, the eldress, is very concerned about them. Trying to find what they have eaten, she starts to suspect that the small group of Believers who recently joined them from the Lead Ministry in Mount Lebanon, are pursuing some strange studies of their own in the Medicinal Herb Shop.

One of the new arrivals is Patience, who claims to have direct revelations from Mother (Ann, their 18th century foundress). She seems to have strange mystical experiences and Wilhelm, duly impressed, encourages her to lead the dancers, a job that really belngs to the eldress. "The angels speak to me, all day and night," she later tells Rose. "I see the evil that infects this village." She goes on to violently denounce Rose: "You!" she said, raising her arm and pointing her finger at Rose. "Mother has sent a warning angel to tell us that you are unworthy. Her heart is so broken she could not come herself, for fear her tears would drown her beloved children. You have betrayed her."

"Rose believed in her heart that Mother Ann sent angels to speak to Believers through her chosen instruments, but nothing could convince her that Mother would have chosen Patience, or anyone, for such a vicious mission." But Patience is supported by Elder Wilhelm who would still like to see Rose removed from her post. "In his longing to return to the past, he had become increasingly obsessed with a period one hundred years earlier, known as Mother Ann's Work. It had been a time when Mother Ann's spirit had often been among them, inspiring almost constant trances, hundreds of new songs and dances, and scores of new converts."

Rose has enlisted the help of young Gennie, who had left the community but remains a close friend and was prepared to return for a few days "under cover" in the Herb House in an endeavour to find out what was really going on. She has an adventurous time there.

It's a story very much concerned with Shaker beliefs, interesting if distinctly odd, what with worshipping "Holy Mother Wisdom, the female aspect of God" and Elder Wilhelm's over-riding anxieties about carnality. When Rose reminds him that without carnality, there would be no new Shakers and they could not grow, his "already ruddy complexion reddened. "Perhaps," he said. "that would be for the best. I would welcome our own demise if it meant the end of carnal relations in the world."

Wilhelm decides it is necessary to re-introduce the sweeping ritual. "Remember what Mother Ann said: 'Good spirits will not live where there is dirt.' We will cleanse and purify ourselves with brooms and sacred fire delivered by the angels." So it all takes place, complete with invisible brooms and celestial fire.

When two of the Believers die, one apparently from natural causes but the other with her head bashed in, Rose not only identifies the murderer but even gets into a physical fight with him. So there is some exciting action even if at times the plot does seem a little drawn out.

A Simple Shaker Murder (2000)
A Simple Shaker Murder tells how a group of New-Owenites (inspired, they claim, by the teachings of the 19th century Welsh reformer, Robert Owen), who have moved in with the Shakers at North Homage, are now trying to take them over and convert them to their (atheistic) ways. Elder Wilhelm, of course, hopefully imagines that it is he who is going to convert them!

When one of the newcomers is found hanging from a tree, the police are quick to write off the death as suicide, but eldress Sister Rose finds a strange little girl hiding in a tree. She turns out to be Mairin, the orphaned mixed-race foster child of the dead man, who may have witnessed his murder. She seems to have been starved and neglected, and Sister Rose does all she can to befriend her and help her. "Rose felt the stirrings of a fierce protectiveness .... The mothering corner of Rose's heart had gone dormant. Until now. " But Mairin is a deeply troubled little girl. She starts to draw strange and mysterious pictures that Rose realises may help identify the killer, but which Wilhelm sees as messages from the dead. It all builds up to a menacing and exciting climax when the Shakers' basic beliefs are challenged by nothing less than the voice of Robert Owen himself, and the murderer is uncovered.

The Shakers still believe in and pray not just to the Father, but to Holy Mother Wisdom and to their foundress Mother Ann. Old Sister Agatha, Rose's great support, had told her that "Holy Mother Wisdom had once visited her children on earth" through a medium. "Holy Mother Wisdom was all a mother should be - tender, gentle, loving and protective of her precious children." And once, when Agatha had been a child, she tells Mairin how "she had been "dancing all by myself in some woods .... I twirled and shook and jumped, the way I'd seen the sisters do it, and I felt like I was being taken into another world, an unutterably lovely world. Then suddenly Mother Ann appeared to me, dressed all in white with sparkling jewels sewn into her robe. Hundreds of angels swirled around her." The whole thing really does seem an extraordinary sideshoot of Christianity.

But it all adds to the interest of the story, with the relationship between Sister Rose and the strange little girl, who keeps disappearing, adding to its appeal. Sister Rose is "still in her early thirties" but is finding it increasingly necessary to stand up to the domineering Elder Wilhelm. She is also confronted by the formidable New-Owenite Celia, ungrieving widow of the dead man, who has been telling the Shaker sisters that "they were being duped by their leaders - that religion was being used to control them, not to help them become more like the angels. She said they'd become better people through education, not by being told what to think and believe .... Celibacy is the biggest trick of all." She even claimed that Sister Rose and Elder Wilhelm were behaving unchastely together! It needs all of Rose's resourcefulness and eavesdropping skills to sort things out.

There may not be much dramatic action until the very end, but the interplay of characters holds the interest. Recommended.

Killing Gifts (2001)
Killing Gifts describes how Eldress Rose is asked to brave the February cold and travel the long journey east to the Hancock Shaker Village in Masssachusetts, where the dead body of a woman "of dubious reputation", befriended by the Shakers, has been found. Accompanied by her young friend Gennie, Rose sets to work to investigate.
Gennie, once again taking time off from the flower shop where "business is slow" is wondering whether or not to marry her fiancé, Lieutenant Grady O'Neal, who has taken over as sheriff. It is easier to identify with her than with some of the oddball characters she meets.

Then there is a second possible murder. It takes all of Rose's shrewdness to puzzle out what is going on. She can only be grateful "for those who were obsessed with their own holiness - they watched their 'inferiors' so carefully, and they made such willing gossips." She is constantly reminded how "while Believers strove for perfection, they did not always achieve it".

The final solution does not seem altogether convincing, and there are too many pages filled with conjecture rather than action before we get there. It is difficult to feel very emotionally involved when, for example, cattle buckets are filled with rat poison. Even Rose is more interesting on her home ground, where, for example, her ongoing arguments with Elder Wilhelm always held the attention.

Dancing Dead (2002)
Dancing Dead is a much stronger story involving a hostel that the North Homage Shakers have just opened, and the very strange group of people who are staying there, including a one-time actress, a thief, a gloomy widow, and Sister Rose's twenty-year-old protégé, Gennie Malone, who, somewhat implausibly, was there for three weeks so that she could get away from her fiancé, Lieutenant Grady O'Neal, while she finally decided whether or not to marry him. She comments that "she'd never before met so many unpleasant people gathered in one place". And then there was Mrs Berg, the noisy aggressive cook, who had her own secrets to conceal (including, Rose suspects, the murder of her husband years before).

When a hostel guest is found murdered in a dyeing vat, it is Elder Wilhelm himself who is arrested! Sister Rose, as the Eldress, has never got on with him ("They held opposing views on nearly everything .... Wilhelm had made her life difficult for so long, she almost wondered what she would do without him. Almost.") . Nevertheless she is sure he is no murderer, so sets about uncovering what turns out to be a long trail of guilty secrets. She comes into her own at times like these, when "the world threatened the village's reputation and sometimes its very survival. .... She had to admit that the call to action always invigorated her."

Rose can behave toughly when required, as when she confronts Mrs Berg, the cook, and, by threatening to denounce her to the police for that possible husband murder, forces her to answer her questions. "Rose watched Mrs Bergin in steady silence, a tactic that many had found unnerving - especially when they were trying to hide a lie." But, even after finding out all that Mrs Berg was prepared to tell her, she still prays for "the eventual arrest of Beatrice Berg for murdering her husband .... With any luck, justice would tap Beatrice Berg on the shoulder without Rose's direct help - though she might have to find a way to nudge it along".

She is helped by Brother Andrew who "had been sent to them only about a year earlier, from another village, but she felt they had been brother and sister for ever. At times, other feelings stirred, but she struggled to release them and asked for assistance from Holy Mother Wisdom. It was her profound belief - and Andrew's, she knew, as well - that by doing so, she strengthened her love for God and for all others. But it wasn't always easy."

It all builds up to an exciting climax, involving Sister Rose, her young friend and co-investigator Gennie, the girl Mairin (still very good at disappearing) and the murderer. It's melodramatic, but good melodrama at that. Recommended.

There is a brief interview with the author (and others) on the Booksnbytes site, but little else about the author on the web. I would welcome more information as to dates etc.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Death of a Winter Shaker cover
This was the first Sister Rose book, and got the series off to a good start.
Return to