By: Hanna Pylvåinen
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Publication Date: August 2012
Reviewed by: Holly Weiss
Review Date: October 2012
We Sinners is a debut novel evolving out of Hanna Pylvainen’s own life experience. Set in modern-day Michigan, the book puts a magnifying glass on a Finnish-American family who belongs to a hyper-conservative branch of the Lutheran church. So many normal social practices are banned that the nine children are alienated from their peers, but experience great love within their family. Some choose to leave the religion, some lose their faith, some fall into alcoholism, and some cling to their faith against all odds.
The book is a series of vignettes, which coalesce to survey how the individual children react to the stringent code placed upon them by their religion. For instance, Brita, the eldest, must refuse an invitation to a high school dance, because of their belief to resist all temptation. She is very drawn to this boy, so her adherence to her faith is socially costly.
Some of their struggles ring true to any family unit: Chicken pox passed through all the children, urgings to do homework, worry about the family dog, children squabbling.
What is unique to the Rovaniemis family? Ordering pizza is a rare occurrence. Strict bans are placed on each child because of their religious beliefs. Drinking, smoking, dancing, movies and contraception are forbidden. Family meetings with hymn sings and mandatory repentance happen daily. Televisions and VCRs are banned, but the use of four-letter-words is frequent. Some children sneak out to go to a movie but never tell if a sibling did likewise. The inability to relax and enjoy life screams through the pages. The bottom line—How is your relationship with your family affected if you step away from a faith you no longer believe?
The story of We Sinners is developed through nine chapters relating the children’s experiences. Each chapter can stand alone as a short story, but reading the book as a whole engages the reader into the struggles inherent in a fundamentalist environment. Family dynamics are strained at best. The jumps in time (some a few months, a few years, a decade) between chapters are mirrors of the tumultuous nature of their lives. The juxtaposition of the “grace of repentance” versus the taboos is ironic.
Debut author, Hanna Pylvainen, pours her heart into relating her personal experience as part of the Rovaniemis family. She explores issues of personal identity, resisting temptation and moral contradictions. When the children’s stories are pieced together they are an amalgam of the struggles of love versus faith. Brita, the eldest girl, realizes “They were in the world, but not of the world.” Because of the constantly changing points of view, character development is slight, but the book is imbued with humanity. While the book is a bit fragmented and dark, the stories of these people ring true to life.
Quill says: For a close-up of reality within an ultra-conservative religion and its effects on family dynamics, We Sinners is a heartfelt, honest appraisal worth your attention.