This is a stunning and compelling novel by author Rachel Urquhart. The Visionist tells the story of a young girl named Polly living in Massachusetts in the 1840s. Polly and her little brother Ben are left with a colony of Shakers after their family home is destroyed.
The novel includes many details of the lifestyles of the Shakers, a quasi-Christian sect founded by a woman called Mother Ann. Shaker men and women live separately in mandatory celibacy. New members came from the outside world as abandoned infants and orphans, children surrendered by impoverished parents, and some as adults unable to survive in the outside world. Self-sustaining Shaker communities operated with rigorous, labor-intensive conformity. They manufactured high-quality medicines, textiles, and agricultural produce to sell to outsiders. Work was strictly divided along gender lines. The action is set in the daily lives of members of the City of Hope Shaker community in Massachusetts and mentions a few other nearby collectives. There are insights on how people in nearby settlements reacted to and interacted with religious collectives and their utopian experiments.
The main theme of the book is the Shaker phenomenon of “visionists” in the 1840s. Visionists were young women who experienced ecstatic visions. The superstitious, taboo-laden Shakers were receptive to prophets within their communities. The Shaker visionists coincided with the early spiritualists of the pre-Civil War era. Writers like Thoreau and Wordsworth and by various quasi-Christian sects like the Shakers fueled the movement. Mainstream forms of spiritualism, Christian mysticism, and occultism became a national trend by the 1880s.
Urquhart's novel gains momentum as multiple story-lines are braided together and intersect at the climax. The troubling events in young Polly's life are interspersed with a first-person narrative by fire inspector Simon Pryor and that of Sister Charity, a member of the Shaker colony who befriends Polly. The shifting points-of-view give the reader different perspectives: a glimpse of the economic and political climate of Massachusetts in the 1840s; outsider's views of the Shakers and their discreet non-spiritual agendas; and a sense of being a member of a Shaker colony. The historical details are intrinsic to the fabric of the book and they are fascinating.
The book's twists and turns are traumatic. Each character is faced with demons from the past that generate struggles in the present. The social contexts are hauntingly familiar: extreme wealth inequity; the helplessness of the impoverished and the casual cruelty to which they are subjected; the victimization of unprotected women; and the American fascination with extreme religious movements. Characters must find the inner strength to discern the realities and moral implications of their situations.
The author deftly laces historical details with the action of the plot. It is the best kind of historical novel – one that artfully delivers loads of information through the character's lives. The characters unfold and become increasingly real through the story.
This novel is highly recommended for its wonderful story-telling, its rich emotional textures, and for insights on the historic roots of extreme American Utopian-spiritual movements.
~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown and Company, 2014
345 pages, $26