“We Sinners” by Hanna Pylvainen (Henry Holt & Company, 189 pages, $23)
Good fiction often takes us into worlds completely foreign to us and makes them familiar. It even creates characters we may on first sight think we have nothing in common with and makes them feel human, sympathetic.
Hanna Pylvainen’s debut novel is one such work. The subject of “We Sinners” is a family, two parents and nine children. The Rovaniemis belong to a conservative church — a Lutheran revival movement called Laestadianism — in modern-day Michigan. The church forbids dancing, drinking, TV and other common practices in our culture. But its central belief, repeated several times in the novel, is that believers are forgiven in Jesus’ blood when they repent.
Pylvainen tells the story from the point of view of the various members of the family. We witness the struggle of each person with other family members and with their faith. Some hold onto the faith; others reject it; some fall somewhere in Pylvainen uses telling details to show these struggles. For example, Warren, the father, reflects on the family’s constant struggle with poverty: “It was daily things, it was money, it was when he stopped at a gas station and the kids all chanted, ‘Get a treat, get a treat,’ and when he came out with chips they grabbed for them like starving people.”
Tiina, the second-oldest child, is the first in the family to leave the faith, yet “she felt no thrills of liberation.” Her becoming an unbeliever is like a conversion, yet she can’t quite fill the emptiness. After she cheats on her boyfriend, she feels “she was no good in both the church’s world and in the world she had chosen.” For her, “it wasn’t about the sinning at all, it was what you did about the sinning, and she had no means of forgiveness about her.”
In spite of how oppressive the church feels to many of the children, it’s difficult to leave it behind. When Julia, the fourth-youngest, who has left, returns for a visit, she sleeps in a bed with her younger sister and experiences “the old childhood security of many people asleep in one place, the uncomplicated comfort of someone in her bed who was not her lover.”
Not everyone leaves. Brita, the oldest, marries a man in the church and has numerous children (four and counting). Nels, the oldest boy, goes to college and takes up drinking and going to parties in pursuit of Bernie, a girl outside the faith.
But no matter how often he breaks the rules, forgiveness is available at church, and eventually he marries a girl in the church and settles down.
Pylvainen uses irony in this interplay of belief and unbelief. Nels’ roommate, Clayton, is his conscience as Nels breaks the rules. But later, Clayton takes up drinking and ends up with Bernie.
Uppu, the youngest, befriends a new student, Jonas Chan, a shy Asian-American, at her high school. Jonas goes to her church out of courtesy and discovers a faith different from the one his parents had left. “Unlike his family’s old church, no one said they loved Jesus, no one was overemotional, and God was less a personal friend than someone spoken of quietly, as if in fear of disturbing Him.” As Jonas becomes more and more interested in the church and then becomes a believer, Uppu can’t stand it and leaves.
The final chapter goes back to 1847, to Finland, where we encounter Laestadius, the founder of the church. What became in many ways a group that imprisons people in its conservative, sometimes harsh ways began as a revival that liberated people from some harsh cultural practices that were particularly oppressive to women.
In “We Sinners,” Pylvainen deftly explores this dance between oppression and liberation, between belief and unbelief, and shows the gray areas. These are not polarities but gradations of human experience. We all move in and out of various communities and belief systems, searching for love and acceptance. Often we search for forgiveness. This novel shows that sometimes it’s found in strange places.