Cecilia Galante's debut novel, The Patron Saint of Butterflies, has been on my radar (and on my bookshelf) for several months now. I finally sat down to read it yesterday, and found that I was unable to stop reading until the book was finished. The end is particularly compelling.
The Patron Saint of Butterflies is the story, told in alternating, first-person chapters, of two fourteen-year-old girls who live in a religious commune called Mount Blessing. Agnes, like her parents, is completely under the spell of the commune's charismatic leader, Emmanuel. She strives to meet Emmanuel's requirement of perfection, and punishes herself when she, being a human teenager, fails. Agnes' best friend, Honey, by contrast, is a bit of a rebel. Left behind as a baby by her mother, her father unknown, Honey holds an ostracized position at Mount Blessing. Her very separation from the mainstream community gives her the perspective to question Emmanuel's restrictive teachings (privately - open questioning would be dangerous). Agnes wants to be a saint, while Honey just wants to escape.
As the story begins, Agnes and Honey are both recovering from a visit to the compound's "Regulation Room", where Emmanuel metes out vicious and humiliating corporal punishment to anyone (including young children) who violates Mount Blessing's strict rules. Agnes' grandmother, Nana Pete, makes an unexpected visit to Mount Blessing, and learns for the first time of the brutal punishments (these punishments never take place during her customary, scheduled visits). Nana Pete immediately decides to rescue both girls, along with Agnes' younger brother, Benny. But rescuing Agnes, fully indoctrinated into the ways of Mount Blessing, proves not to be so simple. The Patron Saint of Butterflies is the story of Agnes, Honey, Benny, and Nana Pete's journey.
The genius of this book is Galante's telling of the story from both Agnes and Honey's perspectives. Each girl's personality comes through clearly, and together they give the reader a full perspective on life in this repressive religious commune. Through Agnes the reader gets a glimpse of why people might choose to live in such an environment, while Honey's doubting perspective highlights Mount Blessing's problems (for instance, she wonders why Emmanuel and his partner, Veronica, are able to watch television and drink expensive wine, while these things are forbidden to everyone else). Galante allows the reader to see and sympathize with each girl's perspective, even when the two friends disagree.
Cecilia Galante's bio states that she lived in a religious commune in upstate New York until she was fifteen. Her background, I think, lends tremendous authenticity to this book, without ever getting heavy-handed. But I agree with something that Galante said on her website: "The most important thing was getting the characters, who, while figments of my imagination, are still very much their own persons, to matter to the reader." While the facts about Mount Blessing are interesting, the characters of Agnes and Honey are what make the book compelling. I ached for both Agnes and Honey (and, to a lesser extent, for Benny and Nana Pete) when I was reading the book, and by the end, I felt like they were real people.
The other thing that stands out in this book is Galante's writing. She has a knack for juxtaposing the beautiful and the awful. Here is an example, in Agnes' voice:
"The sky is a brilliant bowl of blue. I hate that. On days like this, when everything hurts the way it does, I wish the sky would turn black and that it would rain and rain until I felt better again. I move as quickly as possible, bent over at the waist, clutching the hem of my robe in one hand, pausing briefly to stuff my pockets full of small stones. The welts on my rear end and the backs of my legs make the awkward movements painful. I grit my teeth and offer up the pain for the lie I have just told.
The smell of green is everywhere. The five of six apple trees that line the path are just starting to blossom; from a distance, they look like enormous pink cotton balls. Bright gold petals dot the field like splayed fingers, and every few moments the lonely caw of a crow splits the silence." (Page 11)
One final point. I appreciated the way the publisher put Agnes and Honey's chapters in different fonts, to make it easier for the reader to see when the first-person viewpoint changed. This wasn't strictly necessary - the characters are quite distinct - but it was a helpful detail, showing the care put into the book.
Highly recommended for high school students and adults, especially for those looking to better understand people who choose to live in religious communes. This book would make an excellent springboard for discussions about faith, family, friendship, and the power that is sometimes given to religious leaders. But really, this book can be enjoyed by anyone looking for a compelling story about strong and unique characters.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Feminist Review, Miss Erin, Becky's Book Reviews, Pixie Stix Kids Pix, The Reading Zone, In the Pages, Abby (the) Librarian, Sarah Miller, Reader Rabbit
Author Interviews: Bildungsroman
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.