This book, published in 2013, intrigued me after I had visited a Shaker Village in New Hampshire.
The Visionist By Rachel Urquhart
In which we learn that Mother Anna was kind of a bitch
Rachel Urquhart’s Visionist deals with a protagonist with some unusual mental abilities. This debut novel takes place in the 1840s in Massachusetts and deals with a young woman, Polly, who finds herself in a Shaker settlement after her home is destroyed by fire. She, along with her mother and brother, escape but her father perishes in the blaze. Questions arise, was the fire set on purpose? Did our heroine mean to do this? Regardless, when she arrives at the Shaker village and attends a service, the frenzied dancing of the sect’s members causes Polly to start having visions (hence the name). The Shakers believe she is blessed by Mother Anna, the founder of the Shakers. Exalted, though just having entered the village, Polly is assigned a caretaker, an orphaned sister named Charity, who has her own issues. All is not rosy at the settlement, Polly’s mother has left, and she can no longer see her younger brother. Plus an older Shaker sister is suspicious of Polly's visions and a young investigator begins to search for the family to discover if the fire was deliberate. I've hit the major plot lines and I don't want to give much more away.
As I mentioned, this is Urquhart’s debut novel and it does not disappoint. It is a heartbreaking story but she weaves in hope enough to leave me satisfied. There aren't a lot of books about Shakers so I was intrigued by the setting (the only active Shaker community is in Maine - bet you didn't know they still existed).* Background on the inner workings of Shaker settlements, including religious services, acquisition of real estate, and division of labor, is interwoven with the character's stories. And the characters were compelling: the relationship between Polly and Charity and how their upbringing shaped them but also how desperate they both were for friendship. Though they are still young, Polly and Charity, in their own ways, are great examples of strong, independent women, fighting for a life in a time that gave them very little control or power.
*I highly recommend a visit to Hancock (MA) or Canterbury (NH) Shaker Villages. The settings are beautiful and the museums are very informative. If that doesn't float your boat, go for the gift shops, classic pieces.