VI­SIONS of the past

Tale of Shaker set­tle­ment seems set for the big screen

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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 ofo the de­tec­tive and the de­vout sis­ter, Urquhart of­fers an in­trigu­ing way into the world of the Shak­ers. Through such con­trast­ingc 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.

SARAH SHATZ PHOTO

The Vi­sion­ist

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