Patron Saint of Butterflies
By Cecilia Galante
Fourteen-year-old Agnes and Honey have spent their entire lives on the grounds of a religious cult. Although the girls are best friends, they are polar opposites. Agnes yearns for sainthood and mortifies her body in a variety of ways to achieve it. Honey rebels at the limitations imposed on them and wishes to run away. She gets her chance when Agnes’ younger brother is injured, and the cult’s leader refuses to allow medical aid or anything other than faith healing and some poorly performed stitches. Agnes’ grandmother effectively kidnaps Honey, Agnes, and Agnes’ brother in an effort to get him to the hospital. Once outside the compound, the girls discover that the world is not what either had imagined. Each experiences a crisis of faith and must learn to trust themselves, each other, and their faith in order to cope with the outside world.
The author does a lot of things right in this well-written book. She manages to tell an extremely complex story with a dual point of view in a clear and compelling manner. The two protagonists, Honey and Agnes, alternate their stories in two first person points of view. It can be hard enough to create a distinctive voice for one interesting character, but with two you often run the risk of having the characters not be differentiated enough in tone. That was not a problem in this book. Any writer interested in multiple points of view, especially first person ones, must read this book to see how well she handled this particular writing issue.
Another thing that works for the story is the religion. The charismatic leader preaches and enforces his own particular brand of spirituality that seems to be based on Judeo-Christian thought. Although never explicitly stated, I assumed the saints in Agnes' saint book were traditional Christian saints. Agnes' religious convictions, even when undergoing a crisis of faith, are realistic to the character and thoughtfully portrayed. Religious fiction writers can be inspired by reading the seamless way the spirituality of Agnes fits into the plot. True, the book wouldn't work without it, but she still manages to keep Agnes' character consistent.
Finally, I applaud Galante for not making easy and obvious choices when writing this book. Specifically, I'm referring to the fact that no one in the book is sexually abused. When we think of cults, we tend to think of abuse, incest, and child brides. None of that is present in this book, and for that I was thankful. I admit I kept waiting for the sex-scandal revelation, but it never came. Mercifully. I feel that as obvious as sexual abuse would have been as a problem for the novel to deal with, I feel that sex would have overpowered the book and detracted from the issues already being handled.
Overall, this is a good well-written book that I would encourage writers to read.