A Link to the Divine

A traumatized and hallucinatory adolescent is embraced as a representative of the spirit world in “The Visionist,” a novel about 19th-century Shakers

Rachel Urquhart

When Rachel Urquhart, J85, was growing up, her family’s summer home was a converted Shaker meeting house a half hour’s drive from Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass. She never gave much thought to the place’s former residents. “I knew they didn’t have sex, but I didn’t know very much more than that,” she says.

Urquhart was nearing 40 when an acquaintance suggested that she ought to write about the Shakers. On a whim, she picked up two books from a Great Barrington secondhand bookstore and—in the course of the car ride to her New York City home—began to conceive the story that would become her first novel, The Visionist (Little, Brown), published earlier this year to dazzling reviews.

In those books, she discovered the Era of Manifestations, as it was called, when Shaker teenage girls had fits and fell into trance states and, instead of being ostracized or called hysterical, were looked upon as visionists, as vessels for communication with sect patroness Mother Ann Lee up in the heavens. The girls “were given more power than they ever had before in the society,” Urquhart says.

The Shakers required converts to give up not only sex but their property, their access to books, their rights as individuals and—perhaps most shockingly—all family ties. Children were indentured to the community; spouses were separated from one another.

“Suddenly I saw this world of repression and abandonment and isolation and cultism, and once those doors were opened, this story just fell into my lap,” Urquhart says. “With all these teenagers having fits and going into trance states I wondered, What if you had a teenager come into the society who is behaving in a similar way but for some other reason? Maybe she’s epileptic. Maybe she’s been traumatized in her life and is having some kind of post-traumatic stress reaction. The Shakers think she’s a visionist; she knows she’s not. But she needs the Shakers. I started to pull together a story around this kind of imposter syndrome idea, and it just grew.”

Set in 1840s Massachusetts, Urquhart’s The Visionist follows 15-year-old Polly Kimball as she leads her family’s escape from an abusive father—in the process accidentally setting fire to the house in which he sleeps—and then is indentured by her mother into a community of Shakers. Left behind by her mother, separated from her beloved younger brother by the sect’s unyielding prohibitions against familial bonds, Polly is an unlikely convert.

But that changes at her first meeting. She is overcome by a vision of angels; lost to her hallucination, she begins moaning and chanting “I am in light!” and is soon thought to be a visionist. Told in alternating perspectives by Polly, her new friend Sister Charity and a local fire inspector named Simon Pryor, the story is at once character study, historic tableau, spiritual quest and vintage mystery.

Summer in the City of Peace

Urquhart is a career magazine journalist, and it shows in the intimate precision of her descriptions of the “City of Hope,” the Shaker settlement she invented for the story. She researched for three years before she began delving into her story, spending two summers at Hancock Shaker Village. There the historic grounds are once again yielding up the heirloom vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants that, two centuries ago, were tended by the Believers, who lived in a utopian community they called the City of Peace. At the meeting house, Urquhart says, a docent even performed some of the dances that were integral to Shaker worship, bowing to the memory of Mother Ann Lee, turning palms upward to receive gifts from the divine.

“At first I was just getting acquainted with the Shakers in the most general sense—learning their history, getting a sense of their trajectory,” she says. “I tried to understand this revival period. Then I took my focus even closer in. What it was like to live in a small Shaker community? How did the sisters, as they were called, behave in winter, in summer, at work, at rest? I just concentrated my research on smaller and smaller details.”

Writing her story took another year. She had completed a first draft and was preparing the manuscript to send to her agent when, on a beautiful June night, her laptop was stolen from her Brooklyn rowhouse. Her hard-drive backup turned out to be empty. Years of work, some 350 pages of writing—gone. She would need to begin again.

Even 10 years later, Urquhart’s voice catches in her throat as she recalls the moment when she realized her work had been lost. “I mourned for a few months,” she says. She pauses as the memory floods back, then sets her delicate jaw. “And then I sat down and just tried to write as much from memory as I could.”

The new draft took a year, and then the rewriting began—“massive rewriting, version after version after version.” The Visionist was published in January to admiring reviews, from the New York Review of Books to the San Francisco Chronicle. The book became a New York Times editors’ pick and an Oprah’s Book Club book of the week. Readers have celebrated The Visionist not only for Urquhart’s lapidary language but for her exploration of complex questions about kinship, faith, identity and redemption.

“Who would you have to be to be willing to give up everything? That question opened up a whole world for me as a fiction writer,” Urquhart says. “The Shakers became three-dimensional, because their story was not only about who they were as Shakers, but also who they had been before, what life they might have come from. And that is something that has continued to fascinate me.”

Tricia Brick is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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