Sister Charity, one of the narrators of Rachel Urquhart’s first novel, “The Visionist,” begins her story in 1902. But the tragic events she describes go back even earlier, to the Era of Manifestations around 1842, when several young Shaker girls in the Northeast experienced visions.
She tells us about 15-year-old Polly Kimball, the unlikely heroine of this haunting tale. Polly’s father, Silas, is a nasty drunk who is deep in debt. He’s so depraved that he tries to drown his baby son, believing him legal heir to the farm. He beats his wife, May, with a shovel. He rapes Polly repeatedly. Polly is able to survive this hell only because of her special gift: the ability to channel Paradise.
“As he pins her arms over her head with one hand, she looks beyond him,” Urquhart writes. “She hears a babble of voices over his chuffing. She accepts a thousand kindnesses raining down upon her from a crack in the ceiling. His beard scratches her cheek and her ear is filled with the wet roar of his breath. Still, her mind rises to pass 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.”
But when his abuse becomes too much to bear, Polly sets fire to the farm and escapes with her mother and brother to the City of Hope, a Shaker settlement in Massachusetts. Gradually, she is healed in this place of ladderback chairs, Shaker pegs and spiritual meetings. She befriends Sister Charity, who extols the values of Shaker life: “Order, after all, means everything to a Shaker. . . . Dirt in any form — the foul smells of stale breath and body, the dust of laziness, the grime that conspires in corners, beneath beds, even jammed into gaps between floorboards — is a sure sign of sin. It identifies an idle mind and an unclean soul, and no sister or brother will suffer it here.”
In this spiritually minded village, Polly’s power as a visionist is recognized and exalted, even though she still has much to learn: “To cut her food into squares and never on the diagonal, for such was the slant of the Devil. To keep separate the bounty that lay on her plate, never mixing it into a hash, a habit so commonly practiced by the World’s people. . . . To waste nothing.”
But being a Shaker involves other, more strenuous demands, too. They do not believe in procreation and encourage celibacy. Blood ties aren’t recognized. Polly’s mother disappears, and she is not allowed to speak to her brother. Her new “sisters” envy her spiritual ability. And Polly remains ashamed of her relations with Silas. She is secretive even as the elders press her to confess her sins.
Urquhart, a former writer and editor at Vogue, Spy and Allure magazines, has done her research, and it shows. This is the strength of “The Visionist,” which also has a deep feminist subtext. The primacy of women, the matriarchal structure of the settlements, the spinning of wool and the weaving of baskets — all these aspects of their domestic life empower the sisters of the City of Hope.
But otherwise, this novel leaves much to be desired. There is a mystery involving May’s whereabouts and the real heir of the burned farm, but it isn’t terribly compelling. Polly’s exaltation as a visionist and her eventual fall from grace are largely predictable. “The Visionist,” in the end, is a period novel with education to supply but little more.
Page teaches writing at the George Washington University and is former president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
By Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown. 338 pp. $26