In life, things are mostly not what they seem to be, or so is the case in the new Rachel Urquhart book "The Visionist." Part historical, part biographical and definitely part fiction-thrilling, the book explores the Shaker religion and tradition with alternative views.
Polly Kimball, a 15-year-old girl, fears her abusive father and decides the best way to escape his claws, not to mention his abusive nature, is to set fire to her house, leaving daddy in flames. When she finds a new place to rest her head, it is none other than the Massachusetts Shaker community, self-entitled "The City of Hope." It's 1840, "the era of manifestations" and suchlike in the Shaker community. Young girls are often chosen to be the bearers of mystical visions, and so the name "The Visionist" is bestowed upon them. An honor indeed, but can our Polly see herself as less of a murderer and more of a hero?
Formed in the 18th century, in England, the Shakers broke off from mainstream Protestants to create a new community of "charismatic" Christians. The Shakers, or United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, have always been known for their belief in equality with members looking to women for leadership -- notably, Jane Wardley and Ann Lee. Today they are revered for their cultural contributions ("especially their style of music and furniture") and celibate, yet communal, lifestyle. Emphasis on "celibate," meaning no children -- so adoption and accepting newcomers from outside the community was word on their little street. This makes the Shaker community a perfect place for Polly to find herself a new groove, but of course, that would be just too easy.
Urquhart is a sneaky craftsman; she gives you enough detail to boggle the brain as she slowly, slowly pushes the story cart right towards the cliff. The use of perspectives both from Polly and from her antithesis, a girl who grew up as a Shaker, is complex and fruitful. However, the highlights of the book are really the historical research that Urquhart lays out so sweetly. The Shaker dancing is perhaps a great metaphor for the book: Mesmerizing, slightly alarming but all together otherworldly.
Little, Brown and Company