I love it when novelists put their protagonists in really awkward, painful situations right from the start, and this novel scores quite high in that regard. Here’s how it begins: the Rovaniemi family – two parents and seven children – are moving into a new house, but they have to be out of their old house a month before their new house will be available. At the same time, their van breaks down. A cousin offers them the use of her apartment while she is out of town, but she instructs them to keep the children quiet and out of sight so the landlord doesn’t learn that they are there. It is the middle of the summer, and the entire family is hot, cramped, and miserable. They have no transportation and their budget is extremely tight. Then one of their children develops the chicken pox, and one by one all the children get sick. Exhausted and consumed with nursing the sick children, the Rovaniemi parents allow the healthy children to play outside quietly, with instructions to hide if they see the landlord. Soon, though, there is a commotion outside, and the family learns that Julia, who is about seven, was bitten by a dog. So much for keeping the children out of sight. But it gets worse: the dog belongs to the landlord. The situation is horribly awkward, because of course the landlord now knows the family is there, but of course he also can’t exactly kick them out since his dog has bitten one of their children. He sees that Julia receives medical care, and when he returns, he steps into the apartment to speak to the Rovaniemis briefly. Then, a week or two later, there is more commotion when the landlord’s dog starts barking uncontrollably from inside his apartment, and many of the other tenants are trying to find the landlord. Turns out that he has contracted the chicken pox after his contact with the Rovaniemis, and he is very sick with the more virulent adult form of the virus. He is rushed to the hospital, but very shortly thereafter he dies.
And all of this happens in just the first chapter of this novel.
As its first chapter indicates, this is a novel about awkwardness and closeness and guilt. It is a novel about the way we can hurt one another irreparably just by going about our daily lives with perfectly fine intentions, and this first chapter does a great job of preparing the reader for these themes. The first chapter is also quite a bit more engaging than the rest of the novel, which becomes predictable after a while (and after that it briefly becomes truly bizarre – but more on that later). But its language is clear and its pace is quick, and overall this is an enjoyable, fast-paced contemporary novel that is worth reading.
The Rovaniemis – who later have two more children, for a total of nine – are members of a Finnish fundamentalist Christian sect called Laestadianism (“a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans” ) and live in twenty-first-century Michigan while keeping themselves largely separate from the rest of the twenty-first century, abjuring television, movies, alcohol, and “music with a beat” and socializing only with other members of their church. The tendency to have large families and to eschew any form of birth control is another quality that sets the Laestadians apart from their neighbors. In the novel’s second chapter, Warren Rovaniemi is chosen by his congregation as its new minister, in spite of his own hesitations about his ability to serve in this role – a role that he holds for the rest of the novel. Other than religion, the family’s defining characteristic is chaos. They can never really keep track of their children and possessions, and they live in a house where “a withered orange peel sat alongside a staling swimsuit in the same drawer as the old church songbooks” (125).
We Sinners is ALMOST a novel-in-stories, although with the exception of the first each chapter really doesn’t have enough structural integrity of its own to qualify as an independent story. In a way, I wish they did. The structure of this novel is a little baffling. It consists of eleven chapters, and for most of the novel it seems as if each chapter will be told from the third-person-limited point of view of a different member of the Rovaniemi family. The first chapter is told from the perspective of Brita, the family’s oldest daughter, and the second is told from the perspective of the patriarch, Warren. The novel seems to uphold this pattern until close to the end, when the ninth chapter is once again told from Brita’s perspective. This bothered me, although there’s really no reason that it should have. Once an author sets up a shifting point of view, she can shift back and forth between characters at will, I suppose, and of course there can be plenty of reasons to set up a pattern and then break it – but I still didn’t like it. I didn’t like knowing that there was at least one member of the Rovaniemi family who wasn’t going to get a chance to have the story told from his or her perspective, and – more so – I found myself becoming obsessed with the question of why Pylväinen felt that Brita needed a second chapter told from her point of view, and I really can’t think of a reason.
But then, when chapter eleven rolls around – only twenty pages from the end of the novel – something really weird happens. The perspective shifts back in time to 1847, and the story (not the Rovaniemis’ story, obviously) is told from the perspective of Gunnà, a woman in a reindeer-herding tribe in Finland who is married to a drunk. (WHAT, you ask? I KNOW! This is crazy, right?). Gunnà and her husband are contemporaries of Laestadius, a controversial minister among the nomadic herding tribes who, of course, is the founder of the movement of which the Rovaniemis are a member. Gunnà was undesirable as a bride for reasons I never quite understood, and the coarse, drunken pagan named Aslak is the only man who would marry her. She has a baby in horrible conditions – while her tribe is on the move following the migrating reindeer – and one morning she and Aslak wake up and the baby is dead. She blames Aslak for the death, thinking it likely that he rolled over and smothered the baby in his drunken sleep. Gunnà seeks comfort from Laestadius, who tells her stories of other women who suffered.
And that’s it – the novel ends there. Of course on some level it’s clear what Pylväinen is doing here: she presents her readers with the origins of Laestadianism, which, like most religions, attracted followers who wanted some kind of an explanation for why people suffer. The death of babies and children – much more common for most of human history than it is today – has always been harder to accept than other forms of suffering, presumably because children are so innocent. This final chapter also presents Laestadianism in its original social context, where it provided comfort for desperately poor people living tremendously harsh lives at the mercy of freezing temperatures. Twenty-first century Laestadians do not drink alcohol, refusing the ephemeral pleasure that comforted people like Aslak, and they also place great emphasis on bearing and raising lots of children. Their religion emphasizes community – the greatest sin a Rovaniemi child can commit is to leave the church – and a sense of community and of working for the common good is clearly necessary to the morale of a tribe of nomadic herders. Seeing the origins of Laestadianism helps reinforce the idea that the Rovaniemis and their fellow believers are truly out of context in twenty-first-century Michigan; they have held on desperately to a faith that they probably don’t need any more, given the circumstances of their lives.
The fact that I more or less understand the purpose of this final chapter does not stop me from finding it very, very strange. The first ten chapters of this compact novel are entirely ordinary – which is not to say that they are not well written and compelling; they are – and remind me of any number of contemporary novels that focus on family life. The novel I was most reminded of as I read was Justin Torres’ We The Animals (and it is only as I type this that I notice the similarities in the two titles – how interesting), but I could probably name another dozen that I’ve read in the last year that are part of this general subgenre. But the last chapter is something else entirely. Being something else entirely can be a good thing, of course, but in this case the effect of the last chapter is jarring and offputting, and I don’t like it.
What a strange journey this novel takes: from the young Rovaniemis as one unit, cramped and crowded into an apartment that is not theirs, suffering through the heat and illness and misery and guilt of the opening chapter; to the older, slightly more prosperous Rovaniemis of the novel’s middle chapters, which are largely devoted to the question of which of the adult children will stay in the church and which will leave (and, of course, to the many consequences of these decisions); and then, finally, to – um – nineteenth-century Lapland. It’s bizarre. It’s certainly unique. And, while I enjoyed the novel as a whole, it’s ultimately not effective, in my opinion.