Review: Rachel Urquhart, The Visionist

visionistWriting 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.

One of the more famous gift drawings

One of the more famous gift drawings

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.

The evil Shaker elder is a stock figure in 19th century Shaker fiction (Image copyright by E.J. Barnes)

The evil Shaker elder is a stock figure in 19th century Shaker fiction
(Image copyright by E.J. Barnes)

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.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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13 Responses to Review: Rachel Urquhart, The Visionist

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    “…sometimes reacheS them…” — for parallelism.
    “…but subject to the emotions and caprices of any other humans.” Do you mean “…but subject to the SAME emotions and caprices AS any other humans.”?

    Another piece of “Shaker fiction”!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Thanks for both suggestions. While I’m comfortable with the original text for the second, I understand how it is a less familiar and less idiomatic way of putting things.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Though I read your review with interest, I had first to adjust my viewpoint. C21st Quantum Spiritualist isn’t quite the stand for viewing matters of Shaker salvation and redemption. However, as a student of Middle Ages, I’m used to making the adjustment to comprehend the role of the Roman Church in European life. Adjustment made, I could see where you’re coming from (or rather, what Uquhart’s characters are about). Not having read the book, and unlikely to, I can’t say how telling your review, though with your background I would expect it to be white-hot. It was certainly informative, and considered. And were I slightly tempted to read The Visionist your review might push me over the rim to it.🙂

    • Brian Bixby says:

      The Shakers themselves relied on submission to their faith’s rules and absolute obedience to their elders for salvation. That said, they had a lively tradition of spiritual visions, in which they would contact people in the afterlife or God or Holy Mother Wisdom. (God has both male and female natures.) After a bit of a lull, it revived in a major way starting in 1837 and carrying on well into the 1840s. At the time, it was unique, earlier and apart from the later strains of spiritualism that began with the Fox sisters and spread across the U.S. and U.K. However, by the 1870s, Shaker spiritualism would resemble that of mainstream English-speaking spiritualists.

  3. Mario S. De Pillis, Sr. says:

    Dear Brian,
    Many thanks for your email update about the cancellation of the discussion of Urquhart in Greenfield.
    I never read historical fiction, so it would have been any kind of social duty for me to read The Visionist.
    At one point in your fine review you write :
    “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.”

    Straw Man. (or Woman).
    Of course they were not perfect. Very few of us reach sinless perfection. (I of course, am one of the rare examples of sinlessness. 🙂 )

    The Shakers were like the Trappists or Franciscans, Moshavs, and other non-cultic (Jim Jones) group idealists. They are sins of sex or egotism in the best of groups. The Catholic and Jewish groups are still around, for reasons given by Martin Buber. Hutterites and Bruderhof are harder to explain, but they are still quite young.

    I think that the Franciscans were a bit better than the moneygrubbers and city-state warriors of Tuscany; and the Shakers were, in my opinion, a small cut above the many fellow believers of their time. In their spiritual practices (which can not be reduced to the Era of Manifestations, a la Sasson and many writers since), especially their dancing, their pretty successful control of sensual appetites, their confession of sins, etc. were admirable (if you are respectful of believing people).
    Of course, if you are a rationalist, they are merely good folk, superstitious folk, like any other group of believers in the otherworldly.
    Mario

    • robenc says:

      Mario, I met you seven years ago at Hamilton College, and we discussed the Mormons and the Shakers. I have just had my first real exposure to the Mormons. I was invited to talk at one of their ‘Firesides’ for their young people in the church. It went quite well.

      All that aside, I think the Shakers were more like Vedantan communities in India, practicing brahmacharya, karma yoga, and with their visions.

  4. robenc says:

    Hi Brian, I enjoyed reading your review very much. I do have a few thoughts, not really connected with the ‘Visionist’. Have you ever considered the Shakers from the viewpoint of the Hindu Vedantists, ‘Truth is one call it by many names’, meaning that seekers of truth manifest some part of that truth and in various ways. I attend Vedanta services (satsang and gita study group) with regularity, and find many similarities. For example, the concept of brahmacharya and celibacy, work as part of karma yoga, and work as worship to name two. I sincerely believe that Mother Ann had an extraordinary vision/revelation, and became similar to the concept of the avatar in India. That was in fact her charisma, and so with Jesus too.

    Have you looked into the inspired work much, the messages, communications, and visions? If so I will make another comment, otherwise reserve for another time.

  5. Catching up on some reading today and, as usual, some of your posts make me stop and think, and usually smile. Because of this book review I am having the local library hold this book for me. Thank you so much for posting about it and giving me a good bite to chew. Looking forward to reading this for myself.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Subsequently, Henrietta, I had the chance to speak to Rachel Urquhart at the March Boston Area Shaker Study Group (BASSG) meeting. Imagine my concern when I found out she had read this review! However, she took my criticisms gracefully. In general, BASSG members were happy with the novel, especially as Urquhart offered some of the historical material behind some of the chapters. The conversation became quite involved, including a discussion of how the Shakers butchered pigs!

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