Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book review: 'We Sinners'

"We Sinners," released in paperback today, sketches the outlines of a Laestadian family in the Detroit suburbs as they come to terms with a demanding religion that has equal potential to keep them together and to draw them apart. This debut novel, by metro Detroit native and University of Michigan MFA Hanna Pylvainen, has something to say to anyone who has wrestled with religion, who has disagreed with family, who has weighed personal needs against the expectations of loved ones--anyone, really, who has had to grow up.

In reading this book, it is useful to know that Laestadianism is a very conservative branch of Lutheranism that frowns upon alcohol, tight clothes, low biological fitness, dancing, TV and movies, popular music, and nail polish. Beyond these details, though, Ms. Pylvainen's childhood faith serves primarily as a stand-in for any system of beliefs, any crucial difference of opinion that can separate a person from his family. Among the nine Rovaniemi children, the struggles of the five who remain in their family's strict faith are treated with the same seriousness and care as the--at least superficially--more relatable perspectives of the children who leave it. At first I voyeuristically wanted to know more about the details of this religion, seeking to demonize the community to applaud its defectors. But Ms. Pylvainen does not let the reader make a straw man of faith, and the novel is stronger for her skating over the catechism lesson: this is a story about family.

Ms. Pylvainen zooms in on each family member's life at a potential tipping point in his or her spirituality: Brita, the oldest, trying to control her first crushes; Pirjo, the mother, discovering one of her sons is gay; Nels, the oldest son, choosing to date--and then marry--a woman from his church instead of a woman he meets in college; Uppu, the youngest, leaving the church immediately after her first boyfriend's conversion. (Don't worry; there is a very helpful family tree tucked right behind the title page.) They all grapple, believably, with temptation, and they all confront doubt. Most chapters end with the question lingering: is this one of the children who leaves? As in life, the road toward faith--or away from it--is obscured, a ball bouncing unpredictably in the most unknowable parts of these characters' souls. Ms. Pylvainen seems to know that, while where the ball lands cannot be explained purely by biography, the repercussions of its location are very real.

Nowhere is this theme clearer than in the story of the daughter Julia, notable for her physical beauty and her desire to be agreeable to her family, even after she leaves the church. She has a crystallizing exchange with Brita, who has six children of her own during the course of this book. Brita challenges Julia's rejection of their religion:
"What happened?"
"Nothing happened. I don't believe anymore."
"Why not? Why can't you?"
"I don't know." She didn't know how to say, I don't want to.
Julia's justification is authentically unsatisfying. Equally unsatisfying is the flipside of this coin, when most of the family doesn't attend the funeral of the son Simon's partner. Julia calls her mother in desperation and accusation, seeking an explanation for what she sees as her family's cruelty, and the answer she gets is as opaque as the one she has given: "'It is never my job to make you feel comfortable about your lifestyle choices,' her mother said. 'We're here to remind you of what is right.'"

"We Sinners" is a thoughtful meditation on the interpersonal angst that arises in the space between "what is right" and "I don't know." In her eleven characters, Ms. Pylvainen explores the many, mysterious manifestations of belief and nonbelief that can reshape a family. There is a lot of pain in this book, and I can think of no better place to trot out these themes than from the perspective of delicate understanding provided by a novel.

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