Religious faith is difficult to explain. It stems from one’s personal subjective worldview and is usually colored by culture or history. While a tricky subject, it’s also one so very important to many people and thus has been a central theme in artistic expression for much of civilization. Writers, like painters, composers and others, have explored faith, religious community and religious identity. Hanna Pylväinen’s WE SINNERS examines those themes, as well with the story of the Rovaniemi family and their unconventional brand of Lutheranism.
"...ephemeral and compelling... Despite its jumpiness and brevity, it is a unique and honest portrait of family, faith and identity from a clearly talented writer."
Laestadiansim is a real religion, a small conservative branch of the Lutheran church originating in Sweden and taking root particularly among the Sámi people of Sweden and Finland. The fictional Rovaniemi family is of Finnish descent, living in the Midwestern US. Parents Warren and Pirjo are strong in their faith, which is centered on forgiveness and an avoidance of worldly temptations. But each of their nine children struggles with the family’s religious tradition, some even choosing to leave the church, creating heartbreak and tension in the family. For some it’s a question of freedom, and for others sexuality, but the children who leave the church risk losing the closeness the family cultivated.
The 11 chapters of Pylväinen’s short book are told from the varying perspectives of the family members and over at least 20 years. The one exception is the final chapter, “Whisky Dragon, 1847,” which takes place during Laestadius’s lifetime, when he was preaching against the evils of strong drink and in favor of God’s grace and forgiveness. While all the chapters are similar in style and take place in a rough chronological order, they work together to create not a cohesive novel but instead an impressionistic view of a family and glimpses of particular individuals. The final chapter stands out for disrupting the chronology and for not tying in directly to the Rovaniemi family’s story.
Still, WE SINNERS is powerful. Pylväinen’s writing is understated, emotional and graceful. The characters are at once more interesting and more normal than they understand themselves to be. The book is tense throughout its less than 200 pages as each small resolution leads only to another chapter and another family member’s decision about church, identity, relationships and culture, a decision that in the end forces them to choose to stay or to go. Pylväinen doesn’t show Laestadianism as very joyful or creative, but isn’t overly critical either. Those children who stay in the church are just as happy or unhappy (and mostly leaning towards an unsettled or anxious contentment) as the siblings who left. And those who leave are never shunned by the others, but instead the disappointment of the faithful in the faithless is a heavy burden they carry.
For the most part, WE SINNERS finely balances its multiple perspectives, though it is sometimes difficult to keep all 11 members of the family straight. The huge jumps in time from chapter to chapter may prove more problematic. And readers may be left wanting more: more detail, more background, more insight into character motivation, more resolution. But this is not that kind of novel. It is ephemeral and compelling, and lacking the solidity most novels have. In this way, it well evokes the mood of religious faith and the frustration of questioning that its characters seem to feel. Despite its jumpiness and brevity, it is a unique and honest portrait of family, faith and identity from a clearly talented writer.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 7, 2012
- Publication Date: July 23, 2013
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Picador
- ISBN-10: 1250032180
- ISBN-13: 9781250032188