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The Visionist: Final Discussion Post

by 2 May 17, 2014

shaker women2 As we finish up the series of discussion posts on Rachel Urquhart's "The Visionist," I am more grateful than ever to be a part of the Hello Luvvy Book Club. The characters of Polly and Charity are beautiful representations of struggles faced by women, both ancestral and contemporary. And that the most powerful moments of the book are born of female solidarity really speaks to the overall mission of Hello Luvvy. While "The Visionist" doesn't have an ideal ending, it has a jarringly realistic one: After the terrifying scenes of Charity's falling during her 'Narrow Path' dance and the death of May Kimball's nag, Polly has another vision, one in which she relives a powerful rejection from her little brother, Ben. It's at this point that I, as a reader, realized that Ben was a goner. If Polly aspires to escape the City of Hope with her mother and Simon, she'll be leaving Ben behind. To contrast the disappointment of losing Ben to the Believers, Urquhart delivers Simon from his long, bitter servitude to Hurlbut. As Melinda suspected, Barnabas Trask is a good guy, and is also the key to rescuing May from Hurlbut while simultaneously giving Simon the paperwork necessary to bargain for his own freedom. With May in tow, Simon is ready to attend the Sabbath meeting and spring Polly from the Shaker community. Simon (and therefore the reader) learns that May is, in fact, the rightful heir to the farm, and that-- contrary to even Silas' knowledge -- little Ben's birth had been recorded, thanks to none other than Barnabas Trask, Esq. The most painful section of the book for me does come near the end: we see poor Polly, barely surviving her secret pregnancy, endure two challenging purges before being rescued. First, she finally confesses. She tells Elder Sister Agnes everything, for better or worse. Oddly enough, Agnes shows her some pity while assuring her safe passage out of the City of Hope with May and Simon. The second major purge is a gorey, graphic, and uniquely feminine one: she drinks poison to miscarry her father's child. And of course the poison comes as a "gift" from her former BFF, Charity. While I read about Polly's desperate attempt to staunch the bleeding, I could not help but wonder if Charity was seeking to punish Polly, not just for her "carnal sins" of which she did not know the reality, but perhaps also out of anger for Polly having kept her past life a secret.  In the final Sabbath meeting, to which Simon and May have come to take Polly away, Charity's betrayal is vocalized in the most disturbing parallel drawn between the girls so far: Charity has her own "vision" in which she exposes Polly for who she really is, or who Charity sees her to be. She tells all the Believers of Polly's pregnancy, saying, "She hides a filthy secret within her flesh and worse, within her heart." Charity goes on to claim that Polly has been sent to their community to do the work of the Devil, and that "[Polly] breathes His evil and lives for His word." After this little outburst, it's quite a relief to see Polly whisked away by Trask, Simon, and her mother. By the very end of the novel, Polly has made her grand escape through the wiles of Simon and Barnabas Trask. May is reunited with her daughter, but despite repeated attempts to sway him, Ben remains with the Believers. Simon, who may actually be the most victorious of all Urquhart's characters, is reunited with his father and mother, who care for Polly as she recovers from losing so much blood. In Charity's final chapter, she is still working to convince herself that what she did was the right thing. Her markings have now disappeared, which can be seen to represent a kind of purging on Charity's behalf, as well. But she confides in the reader that true joy is now gone from her life among the Shakers: "Why can I not be the girl I was when I heard the music of my beliefs in whirl of the spinning wheel, the boil of the distillery cauldrons, the crisp cutting of medicinal pills?" Clearly, Charity's goodness was originally a thing of innocence; now, having been exposed to the corruption of the World, she can no longer be satisfied with the simplicity of life in the City of Hope. Especially not after hearing the truth about Polly's pregnancy: "My beloved Polly carried her father's child and I never knew. How this haunts me as the brown mud of March yields finally to April's tentative green." How fitting that this section ends in April, the month most notorious in antiquated literature for cruelty; the season of Spring represents rebirth and the natural ebb and flow of the World, a cycle that feels unfamiliar to Charity but is blissfully welcome among Simon, May, Trask, and Polly. I love this novel's focus on femininity, individuality, sensuality, creativity and imagination--  and how Urquhart uses these elements at catalysts for HUGE change, both environmentally and emotionally/psychologically. Tiny details -- such as the cherished red book or the playful exchanges between Polly and Charity while they're doing chores -- are what really create the contrast between dark and light within the narrative. While the book ends with a devastating schism between the two friends, I think Urquhart's story still has a relatively uplifting moral. Yes, it seems to touch on the subject of coming-of-age or rebellion versus conformity, but it also has a deeper, more challenging theme at hand: that of sisterhood and its importance. In preparation for our first Book Club Meet-Up (date to be announced!), consider these questions: What characters seem to be most fulfilled by the outcome of the novel? Who is the true hero of our story? Simon? Trask? Peele? Polly? Why might Urquhart leave our two girls, Charity and Polly, at odds with one another? What is she seeking to prove? How do we feel about Elder Sister Agnes by the end of it all?  Please feel free to add other comments or questions that you'd like to further discuss in the comment section below. And stay tuned for information about a Book Club Meet-Up here in Little Rock. Thanks for reading along, luvvs! katie-sig    



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