The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
Publication date: January 14th 2014
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Literary, Mystery
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In The Visionist: A Novel, Polly Kimball, her brother Ben and her mother are running for their lives. After her drunken father passed out on his bed, Polly accidentally dropped an oil lamp in his room and set the entire house on fire. As the three ride off in their wagon she looks back to see her father running out of the house. She knows, without a doubt, his punishment, if he catches them, will be far greater than any he has previously inflicted. Still, her mother has a plan and when they arrive at City of Hope, a Shaker community, she is relieved that they will be taken in and sheltered. Her mother refuses to stay, saying she has business to take care of, so she signs over Polly and Ben, indenturing them into the Shaker community. This means they are bound to the faith until they are eighteen, when they will have the choice to stay or go.
Ostensibly, The Visionist seems to be about assimilation into a religious culture and life within that culture. Urquhart uses Polly and Ben to show us the unique particulars of Shaker life, beginning with the fact that they are no longer allowed to acknowledge each other as brother and sister. Earthly familial ties are not recognized by Shakers and are believed to stand in the way of redemption. All are one and the same, with the exception of the Visionists—young girls in other Shaker communities who have been so overcome by the Spirit that they dance, speak in tongues, write or create drawings, all about the heaven that awaits. City of Hope has not been blessed with such a girl but their Eldress, Elder Sister Agnes, has witnessed the phenomenon. It is strange and startling then when their newest member, Polly, begins to sway and speak in an unknown tongue while claiming she can see angels. With this vision she goes from outsider to exalted newcomer.
One of Polly’s greatest adherents is her mentor and roommate, Sister Charity, who has lived in the community since being abandoned by her mother at birth. She sees Polly as both a gift and a test:
I, on the other hand, have felt neither spiritual nor material hardship in my life, and so I count it as my work to accept and forgive. I see that every day, we give and work and worship, humbling ourselves through deep and heartfelt bows before the eternal spirits we encounter in Meeting.
As the novel progresses more questions are raised about Polly, about their life before City of Hope and on a much deeper level on faith and belief. Through Urquhart’s thoughtful prose the reader is able to see what some of the characters cannot. Sister Charity is written in the first person and so her perception of Polly’s visions comes from the singular nature of her experience. To her, Polly’s visions divine inspiration but is it merely Polly’s mode of survival? Yes, she sees and hears angels but as a coping mechanism to shield herself on the many nights when her father was raping her. In her mind, the fact that she “allowed” this to happen means she will never be anything but unclean and unworthy so her answers to the elders who test her ring very true in their humility and self-abasement—making her more of a blessed being in their eyes. Are Polly’s visions any less real because they were caused by her mind’s intense desire to escape than those reached in religious fervor?
Urquhart balances these intense spiritual questions with the increasing tension in the outer world. Despite her family’s appearance of abject poverty it comes to light that the land on which their desolate farm stood is very valuable. Simon Pryor is a county inspector assigned by a wealthy resident to investigate the fire. With his own past hanging over his head Simon must pursue this case as far as he can and so goes in search of Polly’s mother. The trail takes him to City of Hope and his presence brings the past into the community and back to Polly. In this way, Urquhart uses a multi-layered plot to tie together the secular and the religious and to explore the overlapping nature of good and evil, greed, religious fervor and belief. The complexity of these layers and the questions that arise: What is important? What is not? What is real? What is imagined? are enough to give the reader a spinning feeling, much like the one invoked by Shakers at their Meetings. Thankfully, Urquhart’s steady, quiet prose provides the ballast needed to keep the story grounded. This is not a treatise or religious history of the Shakers, although Urquhart does a marvelous job bringing this insulated and dying religion to life. Ultimately, The Visionist is the story of a group of people, each with their own fears, beliefs, and motivations and what they do to protect those they love and their secrets.