‘Into an Utterly Foreign Land’

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.