A Peaceable Kingdom: The Shaker Abecedarius
Ilustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
I’m only familiar with this book through the ancient copy that my family has always possessed. It’s a gentle, whimsical, fantastical book, which uses the alphabet as the structure (that’s what defines an abecedarius) for a rhyming list of creatures both real and mythological, some of which are rare to say the least:
Ibex, Rhinoceros, Owl, Kangaroo,
Jackal, Oppossum, Toad, Cockatoo,
Kingfisher, Peacock, Anteater, Bat,
Lizard, Ichneumon, Honeybee, Rat
(Do you know what an ichneumon is? Wikipedia does, and now I do too.)
It features softly coloured, tidy illustrations of the critters, alongside people in eighteenth-century dress, who both interact with the animals and carry out quite random activities.
The Shakers were a religious community that began in 1747 and reached their height of popularity in 1840. They were a kind of Pentecostal sect, from what I can gather, who believed to a remarkable extent in equality of the sexes, and brought up their children to be skilled largely in practical pursuits with the goal of community self-sufficiency. (They were also firm believers in celibacy, which perhaps explains why there were only three recorded Shakers in existence in 2009).
Apparently, this ABC represents an exception to the educational material they would have largely used, in that it was intellectual and even imaginative, and used to teach reading rather than a practically useful skill – planting lettuce seeds or taming chickens and the like.
The illustrations feature tiny little lines of seemingly random religious text (‘Sweet Peace and Heavenly Love, I bear on my wings from Heaven above’).
Flicking through our battered copy today, I realised that these little snippets seemed entirely fresh to me: I had no childhood memories of them, unlike the main text, which resounds in my head like a traditional nursery rhyme.
Mum and Dad must have deliberately, repeatedly, skipped over them when they were reading this to us. We did not have a religious upbringing.
I think I will be skipping over them in reading the Abecedarius to Miss Bee as well – you must know we here at Daisy and Zelda tend to be non-believers.
But that’s no excuse to leave this beautiful old text out of Miss Bee’s bedtime reading list: it still intrigues and delights me, and I hope she’ll be as charmed by it as I always have been.