Imagine growing up in a family that is so deeply religious that they frown upon watching television. A family where the parents and children, when they allowed themselves, "stared at televisions, like Third World refugees." In Hanna Pylväinen's debut novel, "We Sinners," she focuses one chapter at a time on the 11 members of the Rovaniemi family, telling the story of those who remain faithful to what they are born into and of those who flee. Uppu is the youngest of the nine children -- a family so large because birth control is not believed in. She explains her religion to a boy at school: "It's called Laestadianism. It's a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans."
Brita, Tiina, Nels, Paula, Simon, Julia, Leena, Anni and Uppu are the children of Warren, a minister, and Pirjo. They live in Michigan, and the church is the single most important thing in their lives -- at least until they are old enough to think for themselves. "Everyone has totally selfish reasons for being in the church, when it comes down to it." "We Sinners" isn't perfect -- not many first novels are -- and it suffers from a lack of completion. There are glimpses into each character's lives as they deal with their religious ambiguities or have their faith tested, but Pylväinen oddly concludes the book with a chapter set in 1847 that includes the founder of the religious movement as a character. This would have worked if spread throughout the book, but it's a jarring note to end on. Yet there's still something beautiful about these constrained glimpses into the Rovaniemis' lives.