Once again, thanks to Gabrielle Gantz at http://gabriellegantz.com/ and Picador USA for the paperback book, which just came out this past week.
We Sinners is a novel that I had wanted to read for a while. I have been on a fiction kick lately, and this book provided a good reason why I enjoy fiction: namely, it’s strange and memorable.
This book is broken down into a chapter apiece featuring each of the members of the Rovaniemi family, practictioners of Laestadianism. The binding tradition of Laestadianism is almost a character in itself, an extreme form of Lutheranism, and the idea of conforming to religion versus the pursuit of self is the major force driving the engine of We Sinners. I constantly thought of Laestandianism in the context of the “Weird Al” Yankovic song Amish Paradise, “There’s no phone, no lights, no motorcar, not a single luxury”, only this book is far less fun than the song. It’s a harsh one, and one that I imagine was semi-autobiographical, (but then, aren’t most of the really engaging books this way? How can the author ever separate his or her life from the page?)
Some of the chapters were more accesssible than others, and the characterization of, say, dating, experimenting with drugs, and partying would be almost humorous, if the were not so unbearably sad. We Sinners does something that I really liked, which was the name a chapter “We Sinners”, and place it in the center of the novel, thus suggesting that a sort of moral is embedded within the chapter. The tricky thing that author Hanna Pylväinen accomplishes is to shine a critical eye on the religion. Some of the members of the family seem quite punished by their adherence, and clearly, she does Finnish Midwestern followers of Laestadianism no justice in promoting the religion. But the tightrope act serves to make readers question their own adherence to any faith or practice that requires slavish devotion or sacrifice, even if that practice is not even a religion at all. Basically, the book serves to ask, “What do you do you believe in, and why?” and even “Should you believe in anything at all?”
And then comes the fever dream.
The final chapter seems to be a reinterpretation of Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible. For a while, I thought that the chapter was set in a different time period, or had little to do with the family. In my Study of the Bible as Literature, Revelation is a powerful tool, as the prophecies are suggested to be literal, and apocalypse means simply “Revealing what is hidden”. Then too, am I reminded of the apocalypse in the final chapter of We Sinners, when, (and I am not going to spoil it for you), the reader is presented with the option of little faith and being left behind, forgotten, discarded, and the power of belief. The Church, so overbearing and demanding in the previous chapters, becomes a sort of refuge, a final safe place, guarding against temptation, vice, and of course, sin.
Reading We Sinners demands an answer to the question of faith. Is believing in something that takes hold of every part of your life, still better than nothing?