Hanna Pylväinen's debut novel We Sinners lacks so many traditional plot elements found in contemporary novels about religion. No pedophile priests. No hypocritical pastors. No overwrought preachers foaming about the Book of Revelation.
Rather, the moving story offers grace, insight and compassion. Pylväinen immerses the reader in the experience of growing up in a fundamentalist faith. Although the author is no longer a member of the Laestadian Lutheran Church, she was raised as a Laestadian, like the Rovaniemi family in We Sinners.
Founded in 19th-century Sweden by Lars Levi Laestadius, it is a strict branch which emphasizes forgiveness and forbids drinking, dancing and TV. Although We Sinners is about one faith, it explores how people, particularly children, feel when their religion sets them apart, whether they are Orthodox Jews, Mormons, evangelical Christians or Muslims.
Pylväinen tells the story of the Rovaniemis in 11 chapters, each from a different family member's perspective. The Finnish-American family live outside Detroit and, with nine children, money is tight. But the parents Warren and Pirjo provide them with books, musical instruments, and love. Their house is small, the van rusty and the siblings bicker. And yet the children share a tribal bond outsiders can't grasp.
There isn't a lot of drama. A daughter's classmates discover why she can't attend the school dance. The congregation choose the father to be minister. One brother marries a fellow believer and the other brother — who is gay — leaves the church.
Some children rebel and return. Others don't, but find themselves adrift in a world that sometimes feels shallow and lonely. A Chinese-American boyfriend — an only child — finds the kind of comfort with the Rovaniemis and their faith that his achievement-obsessed parents cannot give him. The final chapter illuminates the hope Laestadius offered to impoverished Finns in a cold, harsh world where alcohol provided the only warmth.
We Sinners is the rare mainstream novel that treats faith with respect and subtlety, conveying both its power and pull.