The Visionist is set in 1840s New England, in and around a fictional Shaker community that is in the throes of a religious revival. It is the "Era of Manifestations" and teenage believers up and down the East coast are falling into trance states and speaking in tongues. Considered by their fellow Shakers to be holy messengers, the girls are exalted as “Visionists,” hence the book's title.
The season is winter, the landscape dark, cold and unforgiving. Inside a Shaker settlement named The City of Hope, strange worship practices mix with a rigid system of rules to create an atmosphere full of tension and suspicion. Meanwhile, in the poor farming towns that surround the community, life is primitive and cruel for outsiders who live on the margins.
The voices of three main characters tell the story. Polly Kimball, a traumatized 15-year-old farm girl who sets fire to her home, takes refuge with the Shakers, and is then mistaken for a Visionist. Charity, a young Shaker sister who has grown up since birth in the settlement and, in befriending Polly, gambles her faith on the honesty and purity of her new companion. And Simon Pryor, a cynical, small-town arson inspector and private detective who investigates the fire and finds himself increasingly drawn into the circumstances surrounding Polly’s predicament.
An exploration of faith, friendship, abandonment, and the nature of good and evil, The Visionist is about how secrets become lies, and how lies torment those who harbor them.