World of Wonders: A Review of Marly Youmans’ Latest Novel

“As runs the glass

Man’s life doth pass.”

  • New England Primer, 1690

The little couplet neatly tucked in the first few pages of Marly Youmans’ novel Charis in the World of Wonders haunted me as I read her tale, spun from the threads of history and fiction, Puritan mettle and poetry. I know Youmans firstly as a poet, and I could follow her handiwork that traces the steady pull of a life as it is lived. The life is that of Charis, and Youmans takes readers on a triumphant yet honest journey from death to new life in the ten chapters of her luminous novel.

I had the hardest time reviewing this book because every time I picked up to work on the review, I ended up getting lost in the narrative once again. Though the themes of this tale are quite serious ‒ death, loss, and new life ‒ Youmans’ prose is still dazzling and joyful, repeating the profound Biblical metaphor that darkness often brings further illumination to the light.

Early on, tragedy befalls Charis’ family and she must flee Falmouth. Her journey to the safety of a Puritan settlement is fraught with danger: French soldiers, Native Americans (dead and alive), little food and no clear path except along the shore, which leaves her exposed in more than one sense. When she finally makes it to a settlement, a lack of rootedness and permanence threatens to rob her of hope. Enculturated in the Psalms, she prays in the words of David when confronted by various hardships: “But thou, Lord, art a buckler for me, my glory, and the lifter up of mine head” (252). Scripture, prayers, and proverbs are the undercurrent in many of Charis’ interactions. Youmans is careful not to make her characters’ faith overzealous. They are Puritans, yes. But Puritans are not immune to vice, and the way Youmans represents different doctrines honestly creates some of the richest turns in the plot.

Jotham Herrick, local silversmith in Andover, gives Charis a gift of her brother’s book, which had been bound, secured with a lock, and inscribed with his name. In it, he claims Charis may: “write down all that has happened to you without fear of others reading your words. Someday your children and grandchildren will want to know the story of your courage. They will want to hear how you escaped your troubles and fled through the forest to safety. Or perhaps you will want to write so that you know what and who you were when you went to the wilderness, and how you were changed afterward. To put your days in order” (119). Part of me wondered if this book was filled with the very story that I read – Charis’ own World of Wonders.

As someone who was shaped by Little House on the Prairie, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and Caddie Woodlawn, I feasted on the rich interplay of prayer, Scripture, literary vocabulary, and regional vocabulary of this novel. It would delight any reader, young or old, interested in well-researched fiction about America’s earliest and bravest inhabitants.

Sarah Collister

Sarah Collister is a writer, teacher, and Anglican who lives in Cambridge with her beloved husband, Clinton.

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