Charis in the World of Wonders is the novel of the year—and the odds are that you’ve never heard of it. Or, if you have, you’ve not yet read it.
Every year, a hundred thousand or so new English-language novels are published. Even a superb novel from an eminent Catholic publisher can easily drown in this ocean of books. Throw in a pandemic, quarantines, a plummeting economy, riots, and a vicious national political race, and the chance of getting noticed dwindles to nothing.
This seems to have happened to Charis, and it’s a crying shame, because it is superb.
This eighth novel from Marly Youmans breaks a lot of twenty-first-century rules and is hard to categorize—two more possible reasons that it never made the New York Review of Books. It’s a beautifully crafted adventure set in the America of 430 years ago. The novel is both Christian and about Christians but doesn’t comfortably fit into the “Christian fiction” category. The protagonist is a teenage girl, but readers of all ages will love this book (it will especially appeal to women and older teen girls). Who doesn’t love a rip-roaring story about a dangerous foreign land and a smart, thoughtful, God-fearing heroine?
The novel opens in May 1690 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Charis (CARE iss) is the eldest daughter in a large English family that has moved from Boston and settled in Falmouth (what is today Portland, Maine), in the far northern reaches of the colony. A group of Indians, incited by the French, attacks the settlement. Charis’ mother sends her and her younger sister into the woods for safety. Thus begins the adventure as Charis makes her way through eighty miles of wilderness—with all its human and natural horrors and beauty—to Haverhill, Massachusetts and beyond. “Defend me from tomahawks, from ill circumstance, and from myself,” she prays.
The wilderness is not the only danger Charis faces. From Haverhill, she travels ten miles to Andover to work doing fine sewing: Andover, where every human deviation from the norm—every talent or birthmark or disability or odd happenstance—tends to look like witchcraft to certain of the populace. Levelheaded Charis meets kind and unkind people and learns to navigate the intricate socio-religious rules. The novel deals with big concepts—forgiveness, friendship, love—as Charis sees them from both inside and slightly outside the Puritan ethic.
The book invites comparison with other works, such as The Odyssey (arduous homecoming after war), The Book of Job (wretched loss without lost faith), and Cinderella (good prevailing over evil). It has aspects of all these classics. Charis faces nearly insurmountable issues but perseveres. She is heroic inside and out.
The novel’s compelling plot, realistic characters, gentle humor, and historicity are strengths, but the first attraction is its glorious prose. Reviewers—there have been a few—can’t resist quoting the book’s opening paragraph. Someday it may be as well-known as the first lines of A Tale of Two Cities or Anna Karenina. It solidly establishes Charis’ voice and character, and hints—without giving anything away—at what’s to come:
I have heard tell that truth loves the light and is most lovely when most naked; and yet I have dreaded sunrising for half my life, and misliked the sounds of birds waking and the look of naked skin when rose and gold were lighting up the quarrels in the window. And in meetinghouses, I have listened as the ministers raged against the wilderness, the lair of Satan, and though I know more of both the beauty of the trees and the burning-flax flare of hell-fire than any of them are likely to know, I do not deny the power of the gloom lodged in groves or the mystery that flashes behind the leaves, eager to devour us, eager to transform us. For this is the world of wonders, an enchanted place of dreams, portents, and prodigies.
In its stylistic distinctiveness, this book’s prose is reminiscent of Frederick Buechner’s Godric, a novel about St. Godric of Finchale. What grabs and holds readers throughout that novel is Godric’s singular language; muscular, rhythmic near-poetry, it carries us through the story and illuminates the saint’s personality. Charis’ voice accomplishes the same feat, in its own way. Youmans’ novels, her five books of poetry, even her social media posts and tweets are carefully crafted and slightly anachronistic, wafting a fragrance of times past that is authentic to the author. Charis’ language is lyrical but beautifully controlled, organic, never artificial. Every word belongs; no line rings false or sounds clumsy.
(Archaic words that crop up occasionally are part of the novel’s charm and verisimilitude. Bossock: “to toss and tumble clumsily.” Hang-sleeve: “a dangler; an officious but unmeaning suitor.” Craunch: “crunch.” Mulpy: “sulky.” Youmans’ use of these words brings the reader more firmly into the past. There’s a helpful glossary in the back of the book, but as the reader acclimates, it becomes less and less necessary to interrupt reading and search for a definition.)
This is a Christian novel, but please don’t hold that against it. Much modern Christian fiction is bad fiction: amateurishly written, shallow, simplistic, and moralistic. Charis in the World of Wonders is none of these things. Youmans has the brains and talent to present nuanced people and issues in a nuanced way. Although the novel is nearly allegorical, its characters are complex and deeply human. There’s no sermonizing and no cheap grace. Every decision and conclusion that Charis reaches has come at great cost.
The main threads weaving gently through the novel have to do with forgiveness: God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of each other. This is never shouted; instead, the meaning may dawn upon the reader well after finishing the book. For instance, the Puritans believe in predestination—that only a certain number of the “godly elect” (their name for themselves) will be saved by God’s grace and go to Heaven. They also believe that God wills and causes bad things to happen to sinners. There are people who believe that God willed the annihilation of Charis’ family and settlement. She thinks differently. “I do not believe my family was destined to be killed,” she says. “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.” Later in the novel, she says: “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.”
Charis also grapples with the difficult commandment to forgive. The French, the Indians, and even the good folks of Andover wrong her gravely, yet although she may fear, she does not hate. At one point, concerning the Indians, she says, “I could not pray . . . but I meant to. For aren’t we to pray for our enemies? It is hard when they are not like us and wish to murder everything we have ever loved and admired.” No sermon; just understandable struggle. What Christian has not come up against the immense problem of loving those who hate us? Charis faces it squarely and means to do right.
Youmans has a reputation for research and thoroughness. Her portrayal of 1690s America and the people who lived it is utterly confident. Concerning old beliefs and practices that raise twenty-first century, first-world eyebrows, she remains Switzerland. The novel offers a glimpse of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—its holy thirst for God, its predictable human cruelty—as if the author had lived then.
Parents of young teens and pre-teens should be aware of the very few brief, lyrical descriptions of sexual desire in the novel. Understand: there is no bodice-ripping here. These are the thoughts of a devout girl falling in love with a devout man, and later enjoying married life with her good husband—but the language is intense and exultant. Here’s Charis’ first kiss: “My pulse flicked faster and faster and sent out stars like struck flint. Our veins turned to white flame that ran from one to the other.” And here she describes a conversation in bed with her new husband:
Jotham laced his fingers with mine. “To have is to be joyful but with all pleasure braided with fear to lose. Not to have is barren and a lone-sorrow. Nothing earthly is pure content.” I heard and understood his words, and yet he looked peaceable and replete to me. “Still, I am in good comfort,” he murmured.
This is how lovers should speak to each other but seldom do these days, even during courtship (if courtship still exists). Youmans’ love passages are as beautiful as the “Song of Songs.” Still, this may be heady stuff for some young teens.
One particular character deserves his own mention here: Charis’ uncle’s estimable horse, Hortus, whom she finds wandering in the forest after the attack on her settlement. Hortus is with Charis from nearly the beginning to the end. He is a grace, a gift from God, a guardian angel. The book is not about him, but he’s a hero, over and over. Charis unashamedly waxes eloquent over him, citing Habakkuk: “It is much to be a mortal woman and alive, walking through the realm where ground and heaven meet. But it is much also to be a horse, ‘swifter than the leopards’ and ‘more fierce than the wolves of the evening.’” Elsewhere she says, “His flesh and hide wrapped a spirit that neither fretted about his salvation nor clung to remorse.” Smart, steadfast, good-natured, Hortus is the perfect friend and one of the greatest fictional horses ever.
At novel’s end, Charis has overcome tremendous hardship, danger, and heartbreak. “Evidently I was a surviving kind of person,” she says. Here is her conclusion about the meaning of it all:
God fashioned the waters and their salt, changeable secrets out of joy and pleasure, and likewise he formed me, and all he longed for me in my life was that I be alive, all the way alive and whole like the sea, doing what I was intended to do, being all of what I was meant to be—a woman rejoicing in creation and sensing another, better world next to our own, a mother and wife, a wielder of the needle, an apprentice to a goldsmith, and a candle on fire. The inchoate longings, unsure thoughts, tidal feelings, and waves of sorrow or unexpected happiness that I had felt since leaving Falmouth were currents in my own mystery, for who is not a riddle and a wonder to herself, to himself? For we are a crossing of the particular and mortal by the infinite in which there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Gentile nor English nor Wabanaki, and what could be more strange?
I read Charis in the World of Wonders in March, and then again just six months later for this review. It was even better the second time. It’s broad and deep, sweet and savage, funny and terrifying, and just plain grand. Don’t let it get lost in the chaos of this very strange year.
Charis in the World of Wonders: A Novel Set in Puritan New England
By Marly Youmans
Ignatius Press, 2020
Paperback, 331 pages
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