There’s a reason you’re not supposed to talk about religion at dinner. It can be a fractious subject, even, and perhaps more so, within families. Hanna Pylväinen’s debut novel, “We Sinners,” follows a strictly religious Finnish-American family in the Midwest as their bond fractures over the issue of faith.
The Rovaniemi family consists of two parents and nine children, so at first it’s difficult to keep track of everyone. They all belong to a conservative branch of Lutheranism called Laestadianism, which the youngest, Uppu, describes as “a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans.”
Initially, characters don’t seem well defined. They’re all extremely religious Finnish-Americans who consider movies, nail polish and dancing to be sinful. The constraint in their lives contributes to a feeling of constraint in the story, which may well be the author’s intention.
There’s Brita, the oldest child, a pious believer despite her boyfriend, whom she hasn’t even told about her faith. There’s Nels, the moderate and compliant middle child most likely to broker peace. There’s sullen Simon, headstrong Tiina and vain Julia.
Early scenes depict a big family struggling to get by. Faith initially exists as a given, a sure thing among the family members, not as a means of tension. Instead, the Rovaniemis deal with their own small dramas and problems.
Warren, the patriarch, comes home one Friday evening from work to find his wife and daughters bickering:
“He was late, he’d missed dinner—the bottom of the pot had been literally scraped—and inside he was reminded again of how Pirjo wanted him to put in the wood floors already. The paint was peeling off the plywood. But setting his briefcase next to the stash of backpacks, he could hear bickering from upstairs. … Tiina had been wearing Brita’s jeans, it seemed, and stretched them out.”
The Rovaniemi family attends work and school and goes through teenage dramas just like everyone else. Still, they stand apart from the “non-believers” in subtle yet significant ways.
The chapter titled “Party Boy” begins with the simple but foreboding sentence “Nels went to a party.” While playing a game of Never Have I Ever with his college peers, he “spent everyone else’s turn trying to think of what he would say, something that seemed, in its admission of having not done something, to admit to having done other, wilder things.”
Inevitably, some of the children begin to fall away from the church.
Tiina leaves her family to live with her boyfriend in Manhattan. When she returns for Christmas her sisters ask her if she’ll consider coming back for good. To appease them, she says she might, but secretly she’s sure of her original decision to leave:
“Now that she had seen the world, now that she had been in it — she could not go back. She tried to imagine it for a minute … accepting life where you had babies and had babies. … The two futures were so dissimilar she was sure they did not exist on the same continent.”
Moving from religious to secular life happens differently for the youngest daughter, Uppu, who falls in love with a non-believer in a would-be Romeo and Juliet story. But instead of warring families and heated disputes, the two clans get along well, and Jonas feels so welcomed by Uppu’s parents that he chooses to join the church. Uppu feels betrayed, although Jonas has a long-term strategy in mind when joining.
He knows that, though she may stray, Uppu will eventually return to the church: “ ‘You know’, she said, ‘some days I think it’s incredible I haven’t left it yet, and some days it’s like I know in my deepest place that I can never leave it, that I’ll always come back, that this is just a phase, I just think I’m so cool right now and one day I’ll wake up and realize what an idiot I am. So I think ultimately, maybe, my problem is that I’m just too self-aware, like I get my own future too much, I get how dumb I’m being right now.’”
Although Uppu, like her brothers and sisters before her, rebels in large and small ways against the teachings of their faith, she also sees herself returning as an adult. She simply can’t imagine things any other way. The strong hold the family’s religion has on all its members displays itself prominently in Uppu. The poignancy with which her struggle is relayed sets this book apart from others dealing with the same topic. Being part of a strict faith is difficult and complex, but so is trying to break free from it.
For these reasons “We Sinners” rises above the slow beginning and culminates as a memorable and unique first novel.