Ilyon Woo’s first book is a highly-praised work of popular history set in the Capital Region. Eunice Chapman is compelled to seek custody of her three children after their 1814 abduction by her estranged, alcoholic husband James, who elected to become a member of the Shaker community. James, who had sold the family home in Durham, New York, absconding with the money and leaving his family destitute, first brings the children to live at the Watervliet Shaker Settlement, located near what is now the Albany International Airport, before taking them into hiding at another Shaker site in New Hampshire. Much of the action also takes place at sessions of the New York State Legislature, where Eunice is compelled to use “feminine wiles,” and a previously untapped talent for public speaking, in order to win lawmakers over to her cause.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Debby Applegate called the book “masterfully written, deeply suspenseful, and filled with fascinating facts and insights,” and National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick said, “Woo brings the past to life in all its wonderful strangeness, complexity, and verve…. This is what history is all about.” 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner in nonfiction, John Matteson said, “A writer of extraordinary empathy and great resourcefulness, Ilyon Woo has transformed a neglected historical record into a vivid evocation of an era and an amazing tribute to a remarkably tenacious woman, Eunice Chapman. Meticulously researched and compellingly narrated, ‘-The Great Divorce’ will stand beside the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in the pantheon of American women’s history writing.”
A graduate of Yale and Columbia, Ilyon Woo has been interested in the Shakers since girlhood. In 2000 she starred in a short film directed by celebrated African American film pioneer Charles Burnett about the inter-generational divide between a young Korean American woman and her grandmother, set against the backdrop of a Little League baseball game. In recent days, she has been working on dramatic readings of portions of “The Great Divorce,” which have been staged at Harvard University’s Fruitlands Museum and other venues.
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