Charis in the World of Wonders
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Review by H. S. Cross
Remember traveling? That was when we used to get in the car and hit the road, or board a jet and fly to another country, or perhaps even risk seasickness and cruise across a body of water to a foreign clime. The chief purpose of travel, we were told, was to “broaden the mind,” but we also left our homes and put ourselves in contact with unvetted strangers to satisfy a deeper hunger, to find out how other languages sound, how the air feels and smells, what people do there, how and what they eat, drink, and believe, and to experience for a short time what it feels like to live as someone quite different from ourselves. Literature can offer a parallel experience, and Marly Youmans’s most recent novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, offers it more than most.
Youmans takes us to 1690s Massachusetts Bay Colony and invites us into its mind. Every book is governed by a mind, and the mind’s essence rubs off on the reader, at least temporarily. It’s worth asking whether occupying that mind will make us more human, or less. Is the mind expanding or stifling? The mind of the book is not quite the same thing as the point-of-view, though they are related.
In Charis in the World of Wonders, we enter the point-of-view of Charis, a young woman — a girl, really — who suffers great losses and finds love in unexpected places; we are whisked away from our time and bounced into an alien world as suddenly as Charis is thrust out a window at the novel’s opening. The people in this world dress differently than we do, speak differently, think differently, and, most of all, live differently, in unbroken connection to a reality with which we have almost entirely lost touch: the wondrous yet Job-like reality of a world made by God, ruled by God, and loved by God, though God’s love is perhaps the most fearsome thing of all.
The plot concerns the joys and sorrows that shape Charis’s young life, some brought about by her own actions, some not, and how she responds to them and interprets them. This interpretive stance of hers — roughly, that God loves us and is with us in sorrow and pain; that he is omnipotent and may punish us, yet does not will us harm — leads her to see the created world as full of wonder, a quality that induces awe, pleasure, and awareness of the divine.
Youmans conjures such a world with her descriptive skill (she is also a poet) and her deft inclusion of period vocabulary (there is a glossary of East Anglian words at the back). Unlike some writers, whose lush prose is deployed either to advertise their MFA training or to hoodwink the reader into accepting shallow or dubious views, Youmans weaves a linguistic texture that is sensory, porous, and just a bit irrational (words such as niffle-naffle, frampled, and bishybarnybee will do that). It is the language of a mind at one with the natural world and with the Bible, a pre-industrial mind, one inhabiting that liminal zone between reason and the unconscious, between humans and God. Everyone in the novel occupies this zone, even as they deal with quotidian matters such as sewing, militias, and the spotted pig eating poison plants and dying.
What does this foreign mind, the mind of the book, demonstrate about reality? First, it testifies that God is in every thing, close at hand but never fully knowable. It shows we are fools to take survival for granted (yes, even today with the masking powers of our technologies and our information-saturated discourse). It illustrates that all people are flawed, some more than others; that there was a time when people lived in community, sat up with those suffering grievous dreams, spent days with women giving birth and having given birth, and took pity on the helpless. In this world, everyone knows God (the Europeans anyway), though they may differ in their understandings.
In one town where Charis stays, there are two clergymen — a Satan and sin focused younger man and a mercy and Christ-in-our-suffering older one. They vie over whose worldview will prevail, whether from the pulpit or in their pastoral care of those in distress. Besides Charis herself, who suffers from a type of PTSD at one point, the novel presents two other women in mental distress, one from frustration and envy, the other from postpartum depression. Notably, the community seems to think the women’s disorders need care. They don’t leave them to work it out on their own. When the depressed new mother is spiraling into madness while contemplating sin, people come and contend with her in theological debate. The elder clergyman tells her husband she needs comforting thoughts, heat, food, and rest. This is a community in which care for the body, mind, and soul are all taken seriously and understood to be touching the same thing: the human person.
In terms of setting and society, the novel sits adjacent to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Besides the Puritans, it contains Hawthorne’s “stern old wilderness,” his work’s sense of wildness in the natural world, its fear and fascination with the forest, its relationship to the “savage,” and its nostalgia for a less brutal existence back in England. Unlike Hawthorne, however, witch trials and damnation do not govern Charis; this is not a book about the flaws of the Puritans. To be sure, the Puritans of Charis have prejudices and shortcomings, but the novel leaves the judgment of them as a side matter for the reader to undertake, if indeed it is possible to generalize about a group as multifaceted as these characters, as with any real people.
Youmans shrewdly presents the collective madness of witch trials as one of many destructive forces in the world — on a level with Indian massacres, concussions, and drowning. As such, the hysteria seems less alien, our modern complacencies less sure, leaving behind the uneasy suspicion that we may be as prone to collective madness as they are, and as blind to it, lulled by the tools we vainly depend upon, just as they depend on their brimstone preaching, to save us from destruction. This sojourn in Charis and the World of Wonders lets us experience reality bare of illusions: life can end at any moment, avoiding grief is folly, joys should be taken gratefully when they come, and creation is full of beauty, fear, mystery, and God.
H.S. Cross is a novelist who lives in New York, the author of Wilberforce and Grievous.