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‘Into an Utterly Foreign Land’

The Visionist

by Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown, 345 pp., $26.00
schine_1-042414.jpg
Granger Collection
‘Shakers at Meeting: The Religious Dance’; engraving by Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1870

The Visionist, Rachel Urquhart’s fine first novel, follows the intersecting paths of two fifteen-year-old girls in the early-nineteenth-century New England of spiritual enthusiasm, in this case a Shaker community in Massachusetts. “When I began researching this novel,” Urqhuhart notes in a bibliography, “I knew three things about the Shakers: They forbade sex, they made beautiful furniture, and they shook.” Most of us would probably say the same, with the possible addition of Aaron Copland’s use of a Shaker hymn in Appalachian Spring. Urquhart, however, has written a book that is rich with information far beyond the pretty boxes and the ladder-back chairs: The Visionist is a remarkably sensitive journey into an utterly foreign land. Even in the setting of the general religious fervor of the time—the Second Great Awakening, the Utopian movements, the fiery campground preachers—the Shakers are an odd lot. Urquhart reveals the truly exotic nature of Shaker culture without relying on that exoticism for effect—her eye is fresh and alert.

The novel explores the lies we tell ourselves, the fantasies we weave to protect ourselves from a harsh and unyielding reality. Because Urquhart allows for the necessity of lies as well as their limitations, she is able to create two little girls who are both shrewd and naive, calloused and tender. She recognizes and values the emotional complexity even of those trapped in narrow lives.

Urquhart begins in 1902 with a Shaker woman named Sister Charity who is looking back on the fifteen-year-old girl she was in 1842:

It is not uncommon, when one is young, to think that life is simple…. But if we are to be sincere, then we know that we are not made for perfection…and now that I am old, I realize that my youthful presumptions about the way forward were based on a fundamental misunderstanding: I thought life was simple because I thought I was simple. On both counts, I was mistaken.

Sister Charity lived in Albion, Massachusetts, in the City of Hope, a Shaker community of 118 members. “I was delivered as an infant, less than a month old—left without kin on a stone step at one of the entrances to the meetinghouse. I never knew a relation of the flesh.” Instead, she has Elder Sister Agnes, a revered member of the community who has looked after Sister Charity from the beginning. Zealous and severe, the eldress seems at first glance a cold, uncompromising figure. But Sister Charity lets us glimpse the moments of warmth and the depth of kindness in this stern religious woman and so lets us understand something of the appeal of the devout simplicity of the Shakers themselves.

Before finding refuge with the Shakers, Elder Sister Agnes was married at sixteen. She was happy, she admits to Sister Charity, but when it became clear that she could not conceive, her husband turned against her and began to beat her. When she finally ran away from the violence, she found she had nowhere to run away to. No one would take in the battered girl, not her neighbors, not even her parents, who had been happy to be rid of an extra mouth to feed when she married, and had no desire to reset her place at the table. “Do you see how threadbare is the family tie?” she asks young Sister Charity.

Elder Sister Agnes finds a stronger tie with the Shakers, a sect founded by an Englishwoman named Ann Lee, known as Mother Ann, in which traditional family ties are severed and all are “brothers and sisters—children, like the rest of us, of our Holy Mother Ann and Jesus Christ.” They are celibate and women are separated from men, but they preach and work and lead the industrious community as equals. The Shakers welcomed the battered young woman:

They fed her, dressed her welts and gashes, gave her clothes to wear and a bed to sleep in. Then, most glorious of all, they offered her confession, and when she was done, they made her to understand that her barrenness was a gift, that to bear children—to engage in carnality of any kind—was the utmost sin. They took the thing she most despised in herself and made it her salvation.

One of the remarkable things about The Visionist is Urquhart’s own vision, a clear but generous one that is able to take in religious ecstasy as if it were an unusual but reasonable aspect of the landscape. Her matter-of-fact manner is emotional, never flat, but she shows tremendous tact and restraint, a respect for the sincerity of her characters, that make the passages describing rapturous experience extremely powerful. Early on, Sister Charity tells us of a time when she was very little and Elder Sister Agnes was called away to another Shaker community to fill in temporarily for a schoolteacher who had died. There, Elder Sister Agnes witnessed a Visionary for the first time:

She glowed as she recalled even the smallest details of the wondrous day. How faint breezes blew the smell of tomato vines through the open windows and carried songs sung by the brethren as they brought in the last of the summer hay. How the girls in the schoolhouse—young as ten, old as fourteen—struggled with penmanship that day. How their ears rang with my eldress’s exhortations to keep their letters evenly spaced, cleanly drawn, pure and unadorned as the beliefs we are taught to hold dear.

The sensations of an ordinary day, tomatoes and hay and far-off songs, work in the fields and the scratch of pens in the schoolroom—these take on a spiritual beauty in Urquhart’s telling. When the actual divine communication is described, it has an even greater ferocity and force because it is set against this serenity. It is not beautiful; it is primitive and spasmodic. Virgie, a ten-year-old girl, kicks over her desk and begins lurching and swaying. “Her hands fluttered and twitched by her side as her head cocked from shoulder to shoulder…her narrow hips began to jerk while her arms shook and went limp….” The sounds she makes are not angelic, though they “recalled no utterance made by human voice.” There is “a deep growling that rose to a moan and then to the high-pitched keening of an eagle.” Then, from another corner, another girl begins to sing, “a strange, warbling tune” that “swelled forth in great balloons of melody” until the music turns to “eerie yowls that made no earthly sense” and the chanting of nonsense Latin syllables.

Again and again, Urquhart allows us into the dignified safety of the Shakers’ quiet, orderly life, then hurls us into their fevered religious ecstacy, which does not feel safe at all. Little girls wrench their bodies in jittery dance, one after the other, moaning and keening, flopping and writhing on the floor, until “finally, Bridey White, the lone girl to remain seated at her desk, commenced howling like a dog.”

The Shakers call these moments of frenzied prayer “gifts.” There is the Dancing Gift and the Laughing Gift and, most rare, the gift of Visions. But even Eldress Sister Agnes is taken aback by her students’ sudden convulsive gifts from Mother Ann. “How wild the Spirit World!” Sister Charity writes. “The young sisters were lost to it, and my eldress feared for where they might have gone.”

Fear is everywhere in The Visionist—even in the white meetinghouse with its scrubbed floors. There seems to be no real safety anywhere: not in the City of Hope, and certainly not in the world outside, where we find Polly, the other lonely fifteen-year-old girl of this story. Her life is starkly different from that of the chaste and dutiful Shaker girl who has no relations of the flesh. Polly is enclosed by her family, nearly imprisoned in her seclusion. Her mother grew up the daughter of a cultivated man named Benjamin Briggs. “Wealthy, they said, an educated merchant and gentleman farmer come out from Hartford.” But Polly’s father was something altogether different:

Silas Kimball, the son of stoop-backed, black-toothed marginals. Smelling like smoke and animal fat, mongrel skins for warmth, teeth ground down to nubs…wild as skunk cabbage, living in a makeshift shack in the woods, stealing from the fields of nearby farms….

Silas’s parents disappear after a while, mysteriously, but not mysteriously enough for anyone to take much notice, not in a small rough village, not for the marginal Kimballs. Silas, just twelve years old and thoroughly uncivilized, asks Benjamin Briggs for work at a time when Briggs desperately needs help on the farm. His wife is dead and his daughter May, only ten, runs the household for him. She teaches Silas how to tend to the chickens and milk the cows and “how to speak so people could understand him and stop thinking of him as half-boy, half-animal. She did this for her father, that he might have one less thing to trouble over.”

But by the time May is thirteen, her father is troubled, indeed, for she finds herself pregnant and forced to marry Silas, breaking her father’s heart. Soon after, Briggs is beyond even broken hearts: he is killed in an unlikely and highly suspect accident, a beam somehow falling in his new, sturdy barn. Silas is now the man of the house, a role he fills with drunken rage and violence that Urquhart describes with an almost eerie echo of the ecstatic Shakers:

[Polly] feels his weight in her dreams. So many nights, his acrid stink has covered her—blocking out her senses, taking her from the world she can see and hear and feel. His flesh is cold, his black hair prickly; he is sure and quiet. She does not scream or fight. As he pins her arms over her head with one hand, she looks beyond him…throngs of angels misting round her like whirling clouds. They spin. They call out. How they dance across the night sky. Though his thighs bear down on her, she will not be restrained. She cannot breathe or move, and yet, as she takes leave of the angels and travels miles and miles from the heavens, she imagines she is running through a field of wildflowers, her arms spread wide and her face turned to the sun. She is vanishing beneath him, dividing into twin spirits that join hands as they fly away.
This is what nighttime feels like: an odd cleaving of body and soul as she goes where he cannot follow.

Silas becomes more and more cruel, obsessed with the legacy of the farm, which Briggs seems to have left to May, not to his son-in-law. At one point, jealous of him as a contender for the inheritance, Silas even tries to drown his newborn son, Benjamin, in a bucket, as if he were an unwanted kitten. Ben is never quite right in the head after that, but he is a sweet and gentle boy, and Polly loves him, as she does her mother. Polly’s biological family is an enormous presence for her, not only in the form of the hideous Silas, but also her fragile mother and brother. There is little she can do to protect them from her brutish father, and finally, on a night when Silas threatens to kill them all before passing out in a drunken stupor, Polly realizes the only answer is to run away, to escape.

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