“The mantra of M.F.A. programs was you won’t sell your book,” remembers Hanna Pylväinen. “And I certainly never expected to live a writer’s life at this young age.” But at 27, Pylväinen, with an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and a MacDowell Colony residency, has indeed defied the odds and will see her first novel, We Sinners, published by Henry Holt.
The Rovaniemis of We Sinners (parents and nine children) belong to an ultraconservative church (no drinking, dancing, or TV) in modern-day Michigan. Like any family, they struggle with sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and trying to find their own identities within such a large family. When two of the children venture from the faith, the family fragments and a haunting question emerges: do we believe for ourselves or for one another? The children who reject the church learn that freedom comes at the almost unbearable price of their close family ties. And those who stay must struggle with the temptations of modern culture.
It’s a story Pylväinen knows all too well, as she was raised in the Laestadian Lutheran Church, an ultraconservative sect. So how did she travel from believing to the moment she felt she must leave her faith behind? “I was a senior at Mount Holyoke and had written a creative writing thesis entitled ‘Unbelieving.’ It was only then that I truly looked at the people around me I felt distanced from or sorry for . . . and realized I was one of them.” Pylväinen describes her departure from her church as “a loss, not a liberation, and I sometimes look at old friends and the community and see how easily I could have stayed.”
One thing Pylväinen wants to make very clear is that We Sinners is not part of “a national conversation around fundamentalism that skews to sensationalism. It’s too easy to forget these are rational people making choices for very real and important reasons. We Sinners is not an exposé––it does not uncover the secret or sordid hypocrisies of those who claim to be faithful. Its real revelation is people who are rather ordinary, whose faith falters. Perhaps the real fear of fundamentalism is not that those who believe are so very different, but that they are the same.”