Written in sparsely beautiful prose, Urquhart’s novel is like reading Edith Wharton, the mood dark and subdued. Rather than be shut away in The City of Hope, a Shaker community in Albion, Massachusetts, where “the days dawn as black and as sparingly cold as a metal blade left in the snow,” Polly Kimball might have had a life of love she so desperately desired had not her father, Silas, been so abusive towards her mother, the beautiful, frail May.
This is 1842, a time of harsh frontier existence during which kindly fire agent Simon Pryer is haunted by his memories of charred ruins, frozen ponds and the death of young Millicent Hurlbut. Now he must deal with officious James Hurlbut, who has decided that he wants the Briggs’ land no matter the cost. Sifting through the wreckage that was once Ashland Farm, Simon’s findings jumpstart the search for May, Polly, and little brother Ben, a search that will eventually take him deep into the heart of The City of Hope.
Here Ben and Polly have been abandoned by May, left in the care of bruised Elder Sister Agnes and Sister Charity who was barely fifteen when she was first brought to the isolated community and forced to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities of a believer twice her age. As Simon continues his search for mother and daughter, the Briggs’s misfortune continues to call to him while “a siren’s song of unhappiness” swells with the reckless hope that he might be able to save them.
Urquhart explores the notion that cruelty can somehow be overcome as Polly, Simon, and Sister Charity scavenge for whatever love they can find as the narrative unfolds in each of their unique voices. Just when did God's voice become so stilled for Polly? Perhaps soon after arriving at The City of Hope. Here she is labeled a Visionist, a “new believer” of sorts, and is forced into new life of washing and cleaning. Obeying the severe dictates of the Shakers and ordered to draw what she can from purity, the power of their faith gradually infuses Polly: “for you have no flesh kin now.“ For simplistic, innocent Sister Charity, Polly becomes symbolic of the power of the Spirit that lies hidden within her own ragged soul, a spirit that is supposed to lift all of the sisters and brethren and transport them to a oneness with God.
The weeks pass quickly. While May’s whereabouts is the mystery that accelerates the later half of the tale, the central focus throughout much of the story is on Polly, who hides her crime from Elder Sister Agnes. Feeling the weight of her father in her dreams and fearing she will be thrown back into a world full of danger and uncertainty, Polly must learn to follow her Mama’s warning and say nothing about Silas’s rapaciousness and the events that led to his sudden, violent death.
With the aura of a gothic mystery and the oblique threats of bad intentions endemic to the inhabitants of The City of Hope, it is clear there are links between Silas’ past and May’s present circumstances, the ownership of Ashland Farm, the secret agenda of Sister Agnes, and Simon’s family, unlucky though they may be. The story is harsh and barren, lacking in any sympathetic depiction of actual religious life. Neither poor Sister Charity (whose grasp of reality, God, and her own vocation seem nil and pathological) nor Sister Agnes, whose wise counsel is more manipulative than compassionate, can rise above the strange expressions of faith and shame that this community seems to wield as a weapon against an endless string of human frailties.
Leaning on plot rather than language to draw us in, Urquhart establishes herself as a straightforward storyteller who dares us into the rarified world of this strange and perplexing religious order. Polly is caught between her devotion to her little brother, Ben, and her growing resentment toward her new life. Her original plan to escape is thwarted at every turn until handsome Simon investigates and proves to be a knight in shining armor. Eventually the mysteries of The City of Hope put everything into focus as the characters struggle for closure. Simon is the reluctant savior of the story, a man once burdened by memory, death, and the ghost of another life he once tried to save.