Writing a novel about the Shakers forces a serious novelist to have to make several choices, some of which will shape the story, others of which can detrimentally affect the story. To her credit, most of Rachel Urquhart’s choices in The Visionist (2014) add emotional and historical depth to the story. If there’s a problem here, it’s in the story telling. Urquhart reaches for depths, and sometimes reaches them, but other times comes up short.
I briefly met Urquhart last year. Her family owns the former Shaker meetinghouse in Tyringham, which the Boston Area Shaker Study Group got to tour during the summer. So I see how she came by her interest in things Shaker. And, to her credit, she did not rely on just absorbing the environment, but read and consulted with scholars in putting together this tale from the Shakers’ era of “Mother Ann’s Work,” the late 1830s and 1840s, when they experienced revived spiritual energy, and visions and other spirit manifestations were common. This is the period of many unusual Shaker songs and of the famous gift drawings. Urquhart deserves credit for using her knowledge to help structure her story, instead of getting bogged down in irrelevant detail. Moreover, she did not limit herself to just Shaker history, but integrated some real historical information about the world outside the Shakers into her story.
Every writer who uses the Shakers must end up addressing a question: did the Shakers have the Truth, or were they at best one path to salvation, or were they frauds? Given the current sentimental view of the Shakers in American culture, this is an easy question to avoid. Although she never says so explicitly, Urquhart makes no bones about the Shakers having only one of many possible paths to salvation. Indeed, it is integral to her design that this be so, most noticeably in the development of the fire investigator Simon Pryor, whose cynicism and defeatism give way to hope and love during the story. Even Sister Charity, who begins and remains with the Shakers, has a spiritual development that implies that, even among the Shakers, there may be more than one path to salvation.
Urquhart’s answer to the first question leads to a second question: does one portray the Shakers as an ideal, as practical people, or as villains? Since the very first Shaker story, Catharine Sedgwick’s Redwood (1824), writers have wrestled with this question. For if the Shakers do not have the sole road to the Truth, how can they be virtuous? And if they are villains, how came they to do so much good? Urquhart chose to portray the Shakers as real pragmatists. This will dissatisfy many Shaker fans, for this means the Shakers are not perfect, not purely spiritual creatures, but subject to the same emotions and caprices as anyone else. And this can seem shocking at times, as when Elder Sister Agnes tries to manipulate events to secure the Briggs-Kimball farm for the Shakers. It seems far too worldly and even cynical for a Shaker eldress. My sympathies lie with Ms. Urquhart here. For if one is certain one has the Truth, then all other considerations are secondary. And while Elder Sister Agnes may seem far too worldly when she seeks the farm and encourages Polly to depart quietly, it is that same dedication to Truth, as she sees it, that leads her to grant sympathy and pity to Polly when Polly confesses what to many in the World would be damning faults.
Urquhart’s treatment of the Shakers’ visions follows logically from her answers to the previous questions. At least some of those visions spring from the psychological needs of the individuals. However, their effect on the Shakers depends on their interpretation. As Urquhart shows, the truth of visions is in what people make of them. If one is of the faith, then what believers make of them coincides with the transcendental Truth, as well.
Urquhart had a lot of luggage to carry in writing this story. So how does it do as a story? At its heart, the story is one of the unreliability of expectations and the difficulties of redemption. And where it has trouble is keeping these two horses in step. I’m convinced of Pryor’s redemption, but have trouble understanding why he chose it. I’m convinced of Sister Charity’s errors in thinking Polly what she is not, but I have trouble seeing how she recovers. Only with Polly herself, who does not expect what happens to her among the Shakers and has a tortuous route to salvation, and, note well, with Elder Sister Agnes’s own trials of faith do I feel convinced of how expectations and redemption operated in tandem.
I would not normally advise an author to write a tree-killer, a fat novel no one would read, but that would be my recommendation here. Simon Pryor needs more development at his beginning, and Sister Charity at her end, to make their issues of expectations and redemption fully work out in the novel. The frame is solid, the themes are worthy, the story runs along. Give these two characters the more they are due, and Urquhart would redeem them both, and her novel. But make no mistake: as it stands, there is much value in it, else I would not have bothered to write at such length.