Friday, January 22, 2021

My mother woke me in the dark: Charis in the World of Wonders

How strange to be like someone in a parable! And this is how it seemed: once there was a maiden who rose to find that her sister could not be wakened. And no one could ever rouse her again, never again, never. And why it happened or what it meant, the girl never knew, though someone knew. But God did not tell her, though something seemed to quiver in the leaves and utter meanings that she could not understand.To that young woman, it appeared terrible to be alone with the dead, and tragic that out there, Indians and settlers roamed the world when now her sister would not stir and walk with her.

Charis, a young woman in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, loses home, family, and the nearest community during a raid by French and Indians. She is left with only a few tokens of her old life to which she can cling: a blanket made by her mother, an unfinished rag doll that once was her younger sister's, and the family horse, Hortus. 

Smoke curled up from within the stone base of what had been my house. I saw something, yet nothing that was a house or family. "Mother," I shouted to the air, and the air did not answer. I rested my head against the trunk of the tamarack and wept.

Hortus provides perhaps the most comfort, first by giving Charis a way out of the wilderness, and then by remaining a part of her life for most of the novel. Hortus means garden, and the horse is a symbol for the original Garden, a sign that although we live in the fallen world, it is still God's world, and there are still remnants of that first paradise to be found, for God's world is not corrupt. Charis' lived experience is not of a battle fought on the ground between Satan and Christ; Charis lives in a world made by God and peopled by humans who often use their free will to make choices that result in evil. But the world itself is not depraved, nor really is man, we are but weak and fearful, which leads to destruction and despair.

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.

Charis discovers the world to be a thing of joy and (sometimes terrible) beauty wrought by God, and she herself is drawn to making (like so many of Youman's protagonists, and here as in her other books, Youmans writes feelingly of the artist's way). Handicrafts, metal-smithing, and especially the arts of sewing and cloth-making run all through the story.The intricate work Charis does on formal dresses mirrors the intricate design God has worked to fill the world with beauty and wonders, if we only choose to see it thus (there is also a running thread--sorry--about who is worthy to possess things of beauty, with the wealthy and powerful assuming the privilege for themselves). Despite the murders of families and entire settlements, despite betrayal, pettiness, jealousy and madness, Charis in the World of Wonders is a surprisingly optimistic book.

I could have been glad to be caught in gold forever--to be made of such material that could bear and vessel what is unearthly and rained down as spirit. But gold cannot remain with us for long.

Charis survives the initial adventure, fleeing from her home with her ill-fated young sister in tow, seeking safety in the wilderness. From there she begins another adventure, a passage through the wilderness of human society, discovering its vipers and gardens as she goes along. Her best defenses are her intelligence and her curiosity, and though some of her newfound neighbors find her wayward or even dangerous, Charis is not willful; she is open to the wonder of life and trusting in the the love of God. Some of her Puritan community see us as sinners in the hands of an angry god, but Charis is more a lamb looking to discover her fold, her shepherd, and a land free of wolves.

This is a beautiful book. Some readers, I have noticed, have difficulty with the poetic nature of Youmans' prose, and to them I say they should become better readers and lovers of language's music. "tilt and spill" "wondrous cascade" "ungrasped length" "bear and vessel what is unearthly and rained down" are wonderful constructions: just listen to the vowels and the rhythms, the moving accents from one sentence to the next. Youmans stretches prose, but never goes too far. Sound and sense, it's all there. I never do any book justice when I write about it, and I keep that tradition with this wee essay. Charis in the World of Wonders deserves lots of readers. Go be one of them, do.