Elizabeth De Wolfe, professor of history at the University of New England in Biddeford, has, in a rather short span of time, made a vivid and arguably lasting impact on the shape of and approach to regional history.

Her first book, “Shaking the Faith: Women, Family, and Mary Marshall Dyer’s Anti-Shaker Campaign, 1815-1867” (2002) told the story of a strong-minded couple of New Englanders who, with their children, joined the Shakers (United Society of Believers) at Enfield, N.H. When Mary chose to leave, her husband kept the children at the community, leading the bereft Mary to carry on a campaign of civil disobedience, legal wrangling, pamphleting and speech-making that excited New England from Maine to Connecticut.

De Wolfe followed with the enticing, solidly documented volume, “The Murder of Mary Bean” (2007), about the mysterious death in 1850 of a young, Saco mill worker that exposed a little-known world of sexual relations, abortions and things unspoken (though not undocumented) in Victorian Yankeeland.

She now follows up with “Domestic Broils,” a brilliant little anthology and discussion of the bounds of marriage in the 19th century, the nature of Shakerism and the meaning of freedom within that religion. Though not much illustrated (there are mostly title-pages and poems), the engraved portrait of Mary Marshall Dyer (1780-1867) shows a handsome but rigidly determined woman in mob-cap and shawl, quill pen in hand. She is utterly fixed on justice, for herself and her five children.

There is a temptation to put up Mary as a feminist poster-woman, an aggrieved figure, but De Wolfe argues for a far more nuanced story and, once again, brings that argument directly to the public.

Rarely do we find an anatomy of a marriage that includes two long out-of-print documents; Mary M. Dyer’s “A Brief Statement of the sufferings of Mary Dyer, Occasioned by the Society called Shakers” (1818) and her husband Josephs A. Dyer’s “A Compendious Narrative, elucidating the character, disposition and conduct of Mary Dyer, from the time of her marriage in 1799, till she left the society called Shakers, in 1815” (1819).

These are nothing less than he-says, she-says statements about a marriage and the nature of the religion. The “campaign” took a lot out of the former husband and wife and their children, and it caused the United Society of Believers to re-examine their rules, especially in relation to the outside world. Indeed, our current benign view of the religion, their worship, lack of sexual intercourse (and extending the flock in the time-honored way) has much to do with the Dyer campaign poems and comments. De Wolf’s growing knowledge makes this book and its predecessor two of the most important Shaker documents. It also gives import to the Shaker faith, often blurred by the 20th century obsession with Shaker furniture and crafts. Indeed, the latter are products of a useful inner life.

The new perspective set by De Wolf on the importance of family and individuals and their influence on local, regional and national affairs has not gone unnoticed. A younger generation of historians has taken up newspaper research, leading to the discovery of forgotten occurrences that did change things and that, if the historian is willing to be creative and work hard at locating manuscript sources, will actually change the way we see things.

Indeed as De Wolf points out, “Shakers denied responsibility for the women and passed that job on to their husbands” (when wives wanted to leave the community). It then became a problem of the couple’s town of settlement or became a question for the state.

Beyond that, she notes, “The Dyers asked readers to decide what constituted a family and what responsibilities and obligations husbands and wives had to one another in circumstances both good and bad. We continue to ask those very same questions today.”

This is history at its most readable, poignant and I would argue, most important. One conjures a thought from Maine fiction writer Sarah Orne Jewett: “What has made this nation great? Not its heroes but its households.” Interesting anyway. 

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored six books including “Deering: A Social and Architectural History” and the novel “Pyrrhus Venture.” He lives in Portland.