“. . . ever since that day in Falmouth, I could only find that God gave us the natural liberty to err or do well but did not play with us like dolls and carved toys. Why some faithful prayers are answered and others not was a mystery. Nor could I yield to the thought that the daily, hourly fates of each of us had been destined before the worlds were made. Known, yes. But I could not believe that divine will chose my mother and father and all my kin to be slaughtered by the hands of Indians in the wilderness. Their own choices, my father’s bent toward the adventure of planting faith in the wilderness, and lack of foreknowing had led them there. Wild hearts plotted their destruction. The world was fallen, broken to shards like a clay pitcher. No, it was not the throne of an unchangeable will but the cross that hung in my mind with a glimmering, drowned light—the arms-out image of wide embrace that declared we were not alone in our sufferings.”
Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans is a historical novel set in colonial-era Massachusetts and Maine. But it is not at all what I expected from that description. The quintessential American novel about colonial Massachusetts is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and while Charis has many themes that echo and play with the same landscape, the feel of the two novels is very different. Of course it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve read Hawthorne, so I make the comparison with some trepidation. Maybe I should go back and re-read The Scarlet Letter and maybe I won’t find it the same book that twenty year old me read.
Nonetheless, to me Charis feels like it’s doing a very different thing, going in a 180 degree different direction, As I read I kept expecting certain things to happen certain attitudes to appear— and they did not. Not only did the story and the character surprise me, so did the worldview. This was not a language or a world I expected to see in 17th century New England. In fact, it often felt thoroughly Catholic to me.
I’m not usually a fan of first person narration, but Charis employs it to good effect. The novel is as much a portrait of a soul as the story of a journey and the exploration of a time and place. Charis’ internal life is rich and poetic, informed by the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, the Bible, and the classical literature to which her father has introduced her— she’s studied Greek and Hebrew alongside her brothers. Youmans is a poet and Charis’ narration is thick with metaphor and imagery and the language often has the heightened quality of poetry. But it never feels overwrought or strained. Rather it feels like the very texture of the thoughts of a highly literate woman who, formed by all she has read, sees the world through a lens of language and metaphor.
It’s easy to picture Youmans diving into her research for the novel and, as a poet, falling in love with and collecting a list of strange and beautiful words from 17th century New England. The narrative is sprinkled with an unfamiliar vocabulary of archaic fossils, lovingly preserved. It has a glossary at the end to help the hapless modern reader— a little harder to access in the Kindle format than I imagine it would have been in the hardcover edition; I kept wanting hyperlinks from the text to the glossary. But most of the 17th century words I could figure out from context and I really loved the texture they added, the frequent reminders that Charis’ world is not mine. The period vocabulary never feels forced or strange not like a gimmick; but rather, like a key that unlocks the door into the past. The novel never makes the mistake of imbuing the heroine with an anachronistic worldview that will be more familiar and safe for the 21st century reader. Rather, it invites us to enter in to Charis’ world of wonders, a place rich and strange and not always comfortable, a true foreign country and not at all like my current day Massachusetts.
Charis means grace and this book is very much about the movement of grace in a fallen world of sin. I was surprised at how much the novel’s worldview was imbued with faith— you don’t often find that kind of faith— simple, unalloyed with skepticism and untainted with hypocrisy— in contemporary literary novels. What’s more, in addition to the expected faith that had the familiar “Puritain” strains of fascination with sin, the devil, witchcraft, and hellfire; Charis also has a faith that is more familiar to me: one that is infused with a deep awareness of grace and mercy of a loving God. Certainly Charis is aware of those in her community who emphasize sin and the presence of the devil, but her personal vision of God is as a God of wonders, a God of love and mercy. And much of the drama and beauty of the novel is watching her navigate between those different worldviews (the Satan-haunted and the grace-haunted) which are both present not only in Charis herself but also in her community.
The two poles of faith in the novel are represented by the two minsters who Charis meets in Andover: Mr Dane and Mr Barnard. Mr Dane is the older minister and he is incredibly gentle and kind. His focus is on God as a merciful God. Mr. Barnard is younger and is more like what I expected a Puritan minister to be— on fire, preaching about the devil, concerned with the movements of the devil and witchcraft and hell and damnation. “A tug of war went on between them, Mr. Barnard dwelling on the schemes and snares of Satan, opposed by Mr. Dane, drawing the soul to the throne of grace,” Charis reflects after her first meeting with the two ministers.
The drama plays out most particularly for Charis as she processes the trauma of the death of her entire family. She has nightmares, she screams in the night as she relives the horror in dreams. And in her world those dreams could very well be her undoing, treated as a sign that she is under demonic attack.
To Mehitabel Charis’s family’s death is a judgment from God, though Charis wants to reject that understanding, she’s still haunted by it and her rebellion against that common narrative is still a secret thought until she finds herself spontaneously uttering it aloud to a comparative stranger (which turns out not to have been entirely prudent):
“But God let the Indians kill your people,” Mehitabel said. She looked up at me with an expression I had come to recognize, her sympathy blended with fear. “I do not think so. He is with us always, in all times and all places, but I do not believe my family was destined to be killed. The colony government chose not to defend Falmouth properly. More, human hearts are willful and wayward and can be as angry as fire. The tribes are moved by passion and unrest, just as sometimes we are.” My words surprised me. I had voiced my secret thinking to someone barely met, who had plunged into my life without so much as a how-do-you-fare. And I remembered the bright figures I had seen in the sky, the shapes that in my daydreams seemed a joyous glimpse of a three-personed God who did not will our harm. I fancied them as spilling over with gaiety and love as they frisked around a mercy seat of cloud. I imagined that they sorrowed for me as they danced, though they knew some secret that I could not know and so rejoiced.
But Charis has found unexpected comfort from the Saltonstall family who take her in as an adopted daughter and do not regard her dreams as anything more than the natural result of the horror she has endured, and then she receives confirmation of her secret thoughts from Mr. Dane. It is Mister Dane who assures her that her family’s death was not a punishment for sin, a sign of their damnation, nor a sign of God’s displeasure:
“But the elder man took my hand and held it a long time and told me that I would be glad to see lost faces again in paradise, and that when the worlds were dissolved at the end of time and re-made, we would be full of joy and together forever. The old one made the tears rise up against me and betray my feelings, but the young pastor made me burn with coals of his own heaping.”
Mr Dane is always politic about his disagreements with Mr. Barnard, but he’s also quite clear that he does disagree:
“I am not so quick to blame disorder and ill dreams on the crafty machinations of the Devil when we human beings are afflicted with a fallen nature and prone to err. Nor are we two completely in harmony on predestination and many other matters.”
We tend to think of the Puritans, or the “godly” as they call themselves, as uniform in belief. But in the world of the novel there is a diversity in theological perspectives. Charis’ insights are her own, drawn from her own experiences—and likely from the particular theological bent of her parents as well— but they are reinforced by the kindly Mr Dane, who is himself notably at odds with many of his colleagues:
“I have found that here in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, there is a deal too much tumultuous anguish about sin and salvation, and often a ruinous obsession with the wiles and ambushes of Satan and the rebel angels. It was not so when I was a young man at King’s College. At Cambridge, I heard much more about the mercy seat. More about Christ’s divine love. More about grace. We have lost some skillful leaders who sailed back to England, finding this world harsh and fierce, even bloody and malicious.”
Mr Dane’s suggestion, indirectly intimating that perhaps there is something in the conditions of the new world that weeds out the more gentle ministers and encourages the harsher worldview, is an interesting one. But Charis’s experience in the wilderness, the death of her family, and her later persecutions, suggest that such a harsh theology is not an inevitable result of the experiences of the fierceness of their world.
Indeed Major Saltonstall sees clearly how out of step Charis is with her world, but how much she reflects not the current theological bent, but the hopes and dreams with which the original pilgrims set sail:
“You are fine and useful citizens, the sort we need in our wilderness towns. All of those who sailed in the first ships dreamed of a new Jerusalem, a brighter world, and a covenanting of like-minded souls.” Here he spoke more openly than before, although he did not directly address the charge against me. “But the dream fades when our people are too quick to see evil gleaming from the faces of their fellows. That none of them could discern virtue in you, shining like a golden lamp in a dark place, I cannot fathom or approve.”
The Saltonstalls, like Mr. Dane, have their eyes set on what is good, beautiful, and true. They can see the presence of grace among them and recognize its virtue.
Charis’s experience of the wild as the “world of wonders” of the title, is very much in contrast with the way many of the godly —but not the Saltonstalls and the Danes— see the world. For many of them the wild is the haunt of Satan, but for Charis the only evils she encounters in her journeys through the wide world are the horrors created by man. As she and her companion horse, Hortus, wander in the wild Charis reflects: “it often seemed to me that he and I wandered in what the ancient Romans named a locus amoenus, a pleasant place.” And indeed Hortus himself is a sort of symbol of that graceful vision of the world as a pleasant place. He appears when all seems to be lost, the last living remnant of her destroyed home. And Charis clings to him as a sign of grace:
“You are the finest, fairest horse in all the colony,” I told him. “My blossom, my emerald, my gold-among-horses. For who has saved me so often? You are the providential horse who came when I was in the greatest need. A miracle and a mystery enclosed in hide. And who knows but that the good God, pitying my distress, sent you? For you are my beauty and my rescuer. We should have named you Angel.”
Charis sees beyond the surface of things, to their inner God-filled reality. To her a horse is not just a horse, but a sign and a wonder.
I love her reflection on his odd name:
“You were named for the hortus conclusus. Once, people liked to conceive that this was also the little walled garden where Mary sits with her babe in her arms near a fountain and flower and trees. Did you know? And said she herself was a kind of garden, too. And so you must also be a black-shining garden, as dark as night, a nosegay of soot-flowers hidden in the deeps of the night when we needed to be secret from men.” My hand rested on his neck. ”It was not pure and biblical,” I said, still thinking of Mary, “but idolatry, as our ministers preach. But that a woman might be a type of garden paradise is a pretty thought.” On the river close to shore floated a boat, the water on that spot so smooth that the shape was neatly reflected on the surface. As mere matter often does, the vessel seemed oddly crammed with spirit, as if it might soon open a yet-unseen eye to stare back at me. Although the thought was but fancy, the boat seemed glad to be gently stirring on its tether. “If we could climb into the mirrored boat on the river, where would we go? And why did my father name you for a garden and perhaps also for Mary? I should like to ask him to tell me how he imagined a horse could be a garden, as a woman seemed a garden to people who lived hundreds of years ago. And still does to some, I dare say, though not among us.”
Charis’s reflections definitely skirt heresy— from the godly perspective. But to this Catholic she seems very close to a much deeper theological truth, a truth that she reads in the wild woods, in the stars in the sky, in her encounter with a moose. Her natural bent is to wonder.
Mr. Dane has in his keeping a piece of religious art that he received as a bequest from Lovejoy, the former owner of the Wardwell house, a former colonist who gave up and returned to England:
“a small ivory triptych said to be three hundred years old, crowded with scenes of Mary and the child Jesus before a crammed architectural backdrop of stiff, tiny houses and towers. Although the sort of religious object that our people rejected, it held a fascination and was cleverly artificed. On application to the minister, this strangeness could be viewed.”
This piece of rejected art fascinated Charis and clearly is cherished by Mr. Dane who has not discarded it but instead is willing to allow others to look at it “on application.” It, too, seems an emblem of the grace that is rejected by the Puritains but promoted by Mr Dane and treasured in Charis’s pondering heart.
Curiously the triptych is connected in history, in the narrative, and in Charis’s mind to the Wardwell house:
“there seemed nothing about the narrow, steep-roofed Wardwell house that was either so fantastic as African ivory or so artfully made as the carving… Bel Holt hd said there was something else peculiar about the place, and so I felt a curiousity to see the interior.”
The peculiar thing about the house is the hidden tunnel— which Phoebe Wardwell and Bel Dane and both eager to show Charis, like schoolgirls wanting to initiate her into their club. This connection of the secret passage with the ivory triptych brings to mind other hidden rooms and passageways: the catacombs beneath Rome where the first Christians worshipped in secret, the priest-holes in English houses where recusant Catholics hid devotional objects, vestments and the sacred vessels for Mass and also the priests who celebrated Mass.
Later, Charis has a sort of mystical experience, an epiphany, in the tunnel as she is escaping:
“I would not have believed that the underground passage could be beautiful, but it was so: the beauteous beeswax light swinging and shifting in patterns, the crystals and metals like a message of welcome inscribed in the soil itself, and the fragrance of the earth—surely a sign that it was alive, its pores sending out sweet and rank odors mixed. My eyes filled and blurred the light, and my very spirit streamed forth in gratitude and joy at the world of wonders. And while I knew what our ministers sometimes meant by that phrase, world of wonders, the strangenesses, the witcheries, the slashing work of magics, the ghosts, the marvels seen in clouds, and the fabulous creatures hidden in the forest, a new thought came to me: this is a world of wonders because good and true and beautiful, and only sin and wrong make it fall away from a natural glory. Were the animals not happy in Eden, where there was no hunting down of the innocent and no death? As I walked down the tunnel, looking about me at its walls for the last time, I forgot what I was about, forgot everything but loveliness.”
The tunnel becomes a place of insight as Charis passes out of her old life and into the new, beginning her complete rupture with the Massachusetts colony and setting off on the journey that will end with her family in Rhode Island. Here her previous flashes of insight of the wilderness as a world of wonders resolves itself into a deeper knowledge. She has a vision of the wilderness as an Edenic place, marred by sin but essentially good and beautiful.
But before the epiphany in the tunnel, Charis has another mystical moment, prompted by her recitation of a verse from one of the Psalms:
“ ‘But thou, Lord, art a buckler for me, my glory, and the lifter up of mine head,’ I whispered. The words of David, driven from his kingdom, warmed me; I stood up, sensing that I was not alone with Samuel. Closing my eyes, I knew what I had known only a few times before, the tilt and spill of some wondrous cascade in the heavens and a wash of spirit that I can compare only to innumerable tiny gold pins, a brightness falling down on me from beyond the region of stars. For some ungrasped length of time that waterfall of light flooded me, the rays of gold passing through my skin and emerging and raining away through the world. The fountaining-forth was more beautiful than a night when stars fall, flicking from the heavens to earth, for it pierced and passed through every vein and inch of me, its moving lights washing me away until I was nothing but pouring dawn. I heard a voice close to my ear say, “He brings those who sit in darkness out of the prison house.” And I cannot forget those twelve words, as loud as if someone called out by my ear, so that I was surprised the men did not come pell-mell to my door.”
Charis imagines herself as David, fleeing for his life, as St Paul set free from prison, as Job from who everything was taken away, and as Mary on the Flight to Egypt with Jotham as Joseph and Samuel as the Holy Child. The Bible is for her a source of comfort, an inspiration, and a guide. It gives shape to her story because it is the story to which she always tries to conform her life. He misfortunes are certainly a test from God, but they do not destroy her faith, rather they confirm it. How refreshing to have a character whose faith is stronger and more certain at the end of her journey than it was at the beginning. Charis presents us with an image of true, radical freedom: the ability to choose for herself to love and obey God, to discover that he is the source of truth:
“For Christ is my sovereign,” I whispered. And I am far from earthly kings and queens. Is not this new wild world of Massachusetts a realm where I may choose to be free—terribly and wonderfully free to obey God and live fully, in accordance with truth?”
One of my favorite images in the novel comes near the end when Charis and her husband and her son are crossing a frozen river in the middle of the night. Her practical and crafty husband has brought along a colander, mysteriously. She’s not sure why the bulky thing is taking up space with their baggage and she imagines it as a character from a German fairy tale. But when they get to the river Jotham lights a fire in the colander. And then she crosses the ice, slipping and sliding, while holding glowing coals in the metal basket. Curiously, in a passage that prefigures that one she sees the stars a slights in a sieve. Jotham later remarks on the image, proving that he too has a poetic imagination:
“I will never fail to remember the sight of you walking and sliding across the river with a vessel of fire in your hands.”
Jotham and Charis are well matched, he is also an orphan, and a maker, he is not too concerned with fitting in but more concerned with the making of beauty and the admiration of the beautiful. The image of Charis with the colander is an image of the movement of grace: she is not always graceful in the details of her clumsy movements across the bumpy ice, tripping and stumbling as she goes, yet she is a thing of beauty and wonder when seen moving through the dark from the bank of the frozen river.
Thanks to Mrs Darwin whose review helped to prompt me to pick up this novel that might otherwise have passed me by.