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Visions of the past

Tale of Shaker settlement seems set for the big screen

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With her debut novel, Brooklyn-based Rachel Urquhart moves from the world of fashion-magazine writing (she lists Vogue and Allure as former employers) and into the less glamorous one of historical fiction.

The setting of her story is the City of Hope in the 1840s, a made-up Shaker settlement based on the historical counterparts that thrived in 19th-century New England. Urquhart's protagonist, Polly, is a shattered girl from a neighbouring farm.

Abandoned to the care of the Shakers by her desperate mother, Polly comes with a violent past and a terrible secret, both of which put her on the radar of a hired investigator, Simon Pryor.

As Polly hides out in the City of Hope, she also attracts the intense focus of Sister Charity, a devout young Shaker who believes Polly can channel the visions of the religion's founder, Ann Lee, dead 55 years before the story opens. Polly simply allows Sister Charity to think that she is one of Mother Ann's "visionists" so that she can bide her time.

Between the first-person narratives of the detective and the devout sister, Urquhart offers an intriguing way into the world of the Shakers. Through such contrasting points of view, she shows the Shakers as a complex community of people, cut off from the rest of America and deeply connected to it. Their skills as herbalists and their ecstatic dancing (or shaking) are wondrous to those on the inside, bizarre to those on the outside.

Polly herself is pulled between two worlds, perceived as a figure of potential revelation for wildly different reasons. Perhaps this is why the chapters titled "Polly" are not by her but about her: she remains an object of contemplation this way, even as she functions as a witness to the Shakers' daily life and powerful conformity.

There is a beautiful moment when one of the elders hands Polly a note that reads, "You, ever Alone among Many, know Darkness, yet are possessed of Light by which to see through it. This is your Burden and your Blessing."

In many ways, the novel is skilful and entertaining. Its plot builds not only through the voices surrounding Polly but also through Simon's quest for Polly's mother, May.

This quest is often quite suspenseful, and May is characterized as so fleeting that she becomes increasingly symbolic. Almost impossible to find, she seems to represent the kind of maternal love that the Shakers seek in visions of Mother Ann.

In other ways, though, the novel is extraordinarily clunky. The villainous characters are ridiculously villainous in their malevolence, and the good characters so uncomplicated in their goodness and foresight.

Toward the end of the novel, Urquhart has Simon neatly wrap up and explain everything, to such an extent that it sounds like the finale to a Scooby-Doo episode: everyone is unmasked and all motives nailed down.

We also learn toward the end that Polly is hauntingly beautiful. Of course she is. And with the appealing Simon close enough to her age, an entirely new storyline is projected.

Why couldn't Urquhart abandon the old heterosexual love story, especially when the Shakers' repudiation of sex presents such a fascinating alternative to it? Perhaps it's because she is gearing up for a sequel, or luring in Hollywood scriptwriters, or both.

When she lands her big movie deal, you can say you heard it here first.

 

Dana Medoro is a professor of American literature at the University of Manitoba. She finds 1840s New England particularly fascinating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 8:34 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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