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.
When Polly gathers her mother and brother into their wagon, determined to get away from Silas, she stops to look at him one last time, to see him when he is harmless and asleep, to remember him that way. But Silas lurches up in bed, frightening her; the lantern is dropped, and Polly, Benjamin, and May ride off in the wagon with the fiery glow of the burning house behind them.
Poking in and out of Urquhart’s troubled, complicated characters, so odd and so human, so beautifully drawn, is a plot that is a bit creakier than they deserve. The fire does not just burn a farm and kill a monster, it becomes the basis of a mystery story that sometimes feels superfluous in a book that has so much momentum and texture and drama in its small, human moments. The mystery, genre-like, has a detective who becomes an intrinsic part of the tale, a young fire investigator named Simon Pryor. Simon’s story is colorful (he is unjustly blackmailed by a childhood friend, severed from his parents, and coerced into his own lies) but never quite comes alive. In much the way a lie that is too elaborate is more easily detected, there are overly elaborate bits of plot here that become obtrusive, breaking into the lie we want to believe, which is the novel itself. But Urquhart is such a powerful writer that for the most part these unconvincing moments disappear like sharp little twigs in a stream, and we are back to the novel’s rushing eloquence.
Because the Shakers were celibate, they kept their communities going by taking in children given up by their parents, as well as taking children from orphanages. The parents signed over whatever property the children had, agreed never to see them again, and signed indenture papers that bound the children to the Shaker community until they were twenty-one, at which time they could choose whether or not to stay. Like many parents of the time who could not afford to feed their children, May takes Polly and Ben to the City of Hope, knowing the Shakers will take them in. They must give up their family ties, renounce each other as brother and sister, and renounce their tie with their mother in favor of the tie to Mother Ann. Because Sister Charity has been there since infancy, she is more comfortable (and more trustworthy) with separating the children from their parents and is often given the care of the new girls. “It is my duty to unlatch lockets from around their necks,” she explains, “and pry beloved dolls from their clutches, for no such vanity or plaything from the World is allowed by our kind.”
Sister Charity is the one who leads Polly away from the only love she has known, away from the crying brother and mother to a clean, neat dormitory where she and Sister Charity share a room. “You must forget all that you have left behind, for your life begins now,” Sister Charity tells her, even Ben. “He is nothing to you now, nor you to him, and you must look through one another as if you were naught more than apparitions. You must see into the spirits of the believers behind him and draw from their purity, for you have no flesh kin now.”
Bewildered and appalled, Polly cannot understand how her mother can have left them in a place where there
can be no love…. Certainly there had been evil in her old life. But there had been tenderness as well, hidden in the instants when she and Mama brushed hands while picking berries…tenderness tucked away into the time she spent chasing Ben through the barn in fun or coaxing him from his secret hideaways.
Happiness for Polly had been secret, hidden, rebellious. But in the City of Hope she discovers a new, unfamiliar happiness. There, where every path is straight because curves belong to the devil, where there is no worldly clutter to confuse or confound prayer, even happiness is out in the open. It is, in fact, celebrated:
We bowed, we turned, we reached our hands aloft to receive her blessing, then swung them low to spread her Word. We danced and were made glad…. Some were even taken with what we call the Laughing Gift, their merriment catching everyone up in its sway…. Then we set to circling, sisters holding hands and turning in the center, brethren to the outside. We circled to the right—never left, the way of the Devil—faster and faster. After many revolutions, we became so dizzy that when we let go of one another’s hands, we each stumbled in place, falling this way and that like lost souls. In this manner, we celebrated the strength we show in union, all joined together, all moving in the same direction. And we showed the waywardness and confusion of a believer left unto himself.
The literalness of Shaker symbolism is striking—the blue beams of the ceiling signifying heaven, the straight lines, the insistence of the right side being god, the left the devil. Urquhart presents a group that exists in symbolism, but even their allegory is unembellished. Only the dancing (and even the dancing begins and ends with straight rows of believers marching like soldiers) breaks out of the clean lines of the faith.
Polly, witnessing the dizzy ecstasy of the dance for the first time, is overwhelmed:
The new believer, standing apart from the rest, swaying with eyes closed and fists clenched, dancing—a slow, mournful shuffle—alone in a sun-soaked spot. Under the blue, blue beams of the ceiling…the sight stunned every believer in the room into stillness. But her song—its sounds spoke of suffering without ever sinking into words…. [Then] she began to speak. “I am in light,” she chanted. “The only light. Still, he paces round my angels—look! They flit in and out! He moves faster, he moves faster, and his feet pound the floor around me, so loud…so close, so close!”
From her ambivalent words, her obvious pain, and her angelic appearance in a radiant sunbeam, Polly is welcomed as having been bestowed with that highest gift, a gift the community has been hoping for: she is, they are certain, a Visionist.
Polly tries to explain her strange behavior: it was so loud, so hot, the smell of the bodies brought back horrible memories. “I was begging for deliverance. That is all.”
But Sister Charity sees nothing but Polly’s humility, and the community sees what it wants to see—a vision from Mother Ann. Elder Sister Agnes, less trusting than the others, does ask Polly to explain, but Polly is too frightened to reveal the real secret of her terrified trance:
This was not salvation. It was him again. In the rhythms of the believers’ worship, she heard his hoe hit the earth, his kick that sent the hens fluttering, his angry roar. Over and over, back and forth, he came at her, left her weak, made her sick with nausea: the knowledge that, inevitably, he would touch her…. How could she tell this woman that she had not seen anyone’s devil but her own? She had envisioned something nobody in this peaceful place could understand.
The deep friendship between Polly and Sister Charity grows in the shadow of dishonesty. Polly’s secret torments her, but Sister Charity acquires her own secret—a book she kept when she was supposed to throw away Polly’s old possessions. A book is far worse than the slingshots and dolls she usually gives to the brethren to burn, for
reading and writing is forbidden here unless it is a compendium of songs or prayers or rules to aid us in worship…. I know better than to cast my eyes over idle words. For the Devil resides in books, where only sin and fantasy can be set forth.
There are villains in this book—real old-fashioned villains who practically twirl their mustaches; and there is a powerful and unflinching recognition of evil—the kind of ruthlessly plodding evil that possesses Polly’s father—but fantasy is not part of it. Sister Charity learns to love the idle fantasy of the book of travel tales, for fantasy—like the book, like the visions of angels Polly summons up while her father rapes her, like the Shakers’ dances and songs and Laughter Gift—lightens the step, it is a temporary escape from the misshapen lives Urquhart’s characters have inherited.
In The Visionist, the need for escape is as natural as weather and has as many forms. But all of them—fantasy, prayer, dancing, running away—have one thing in common: the secrets that make them necessary. Urquhart has written a moving novel, full of energy and excitement and feeling, about how secrets become lies, how lies torment and distort those who harbor them. She writes with great tenderness about frailty and the unlikely places it can lead us. She tells a story of the beauty and freedom of a straight clean line in a clotted filthy world, as well as the oppression caused by that straight clean line in the swirling human heart.