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The Visionist is a rollicking good time filled with diligence and self-abasement

So I got really excited and ASKED Little, Brown if I could review The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart, because it is about SHAKERS.

Also because the cover is pretty

Before Netflix decided to be evil and take it away, they had a Ken Burns film from 1984 called The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, which I watched MULTIPLE times because I have a mostly ignored, small part of me that thinks living in the 1800s and carding wool sounds like the height of living. These thoughts usually extend to me being courted by Seth, the blacksmith's son and preparing all season for the quilting bee, where my quilt will surely beat Clara Wilson's because it's not like she usually even sews she just has her family's maid do it and who does she think she is I'm going to win that ribbon this year or die trying.

Of course, this could always happen

The Shakers were pretty acceptable weirdos in a time in America when weirdos were cropping up all over. Transcendentalist utopian communities started in the 1820s, Mormonism was the 1820s, and my state's super-awesome cult town Bishop Hill was founded in the 1840s. Shakerism started in the 1740s in England and at least early on seemed akin to current day Pentecostalism: "the small community was soon known for its enthusiastic worship given to 'singing and dancing, shaking and shouting, speaking with new tongues and prophesying, with all those various gifts of the Holy Ghost known in the primitive church.'"

In the 1770s, "Mother Ann" (who basically became second to Jesus for Shakers) led her followers to New York, where they began setting up Shaker settlements. By 1840 they reached their maximum size, which was about 5,000 (The Visionist is set during this peak time). One of the main issues with obtaining new believers was, of course, that Shakers believe in celibacy.

you stay strong, Gerard Butler

So they get new believers through conversion or adoption. The efficacy of this method means that there are currently three living Shakers. BUT, in The Visionist, our heroines come to the Shakers through these means. One was adopted as an infant (Charity), and the other comes to the community as a teenager (Polly). The story alternates between their points of view, as well as that of a fire inspector named Simon Pryor.

I'm all about alternating viewpoints in lit. It keeps you on your toes. With a single character narrating, it's so subjective; adding other characters not only limits the subjectivity due to the reader getting multiple versions of the truth, but also lets you see the narrator whose head you've been in from someone ELSE'S vantage point, which makes you feel a bit all-knowing.

Or like this

Charity has lived in the Shaker community all her life, while Polly escapes to it after a fire that she may or may not have started on purpose destroys her family's farm and POSSIBLY kills her father, who is a terrible person so it's pretty ok if he's dead. Polly keeps this secret, but is thrown into the limelight due to visions she has during worship. 

Ok, here's the thing. I don't care so much about the plot. What made me like this book was the detail it gave about life in an 1840s Shaker community. People were way into their quilts and brooms? Makes sense. Shakers saw every task they put themselves to as a way of worshiping God, so what they made, they made well. Men and women couldn't really talk because CARNALITY and so forth? Ok. Men had to put on cold, wet underwear before bed so they wouldn't be sinful while sleeping? All right then. 

I actually called the Enfield Shaker Museum in New Hampshire to verify the underwear thing, and they said they had never heard of that practice. So it's possible this was a theory put out by Urquhart. Or maybe she read it in an obscure text, because according to Shaker Textile Arts, "[p]eople's reluctance to discuss or even mention undergarments has hampered research into the brethren's clothing." I will say, though, that I also called the Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum, which referred me to the Hancock Shaker Village where Urquhart apparently did most of her research, and THERE I talked to their extremely nice curator, who told me that not only did Urquhart research the book for at least five years, but that she is also not the sort of person who would make up details like that.

SO. Current idea is that it has some basis in fact, and is either the obscure text thing mentioned above, or extrapolated from other similar communities' practices of the time.

Aside from having "Simple Gifts" stuck in my head the entire time I read this, I muchly enjoyed it. Really give me anything that's well-researched and set in the 1800s and I am done. LET ME SPY ON YOUR WEIRD PRACTICES, SHAKERS.

This is a perfectly normal painting; go about your business

More Shaker books!


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