Cecilia Galante's The Patron Saint of Butterflies is based, in part, on her own childhood. She was born and raised in a religious commune in upstate New York. I think she is very careful to say that where she lived was not as extreme (or spiritually questionable; i.e., the color red is considered evil) as her fictitious Mount Blessing, but she does raise some important questions about the wisdom of turning over control of one's life (and one's children's lives) to another person. As Galante says in the FAQs on her webpage, "not much good will come out of it."
Agnes Little and Honey Harper are best friends, 14 years old, and have lived their entire lives in the isolated Christian community of Mount Blessing. The charismatic Emmanuel is the spiritual leader, and members of the community are contentedly obedient. Except for the fiery-haired Honey. Honey's latest infraction has been French kissing a boy, and both she and Agnes have been called into Emmanuel's Room of Requirement for punishment. Agnes is deeply distressed at her transgression (which was to defend Honey), as she has been aspiring to be more like the saints she's been reading about in a book given to her by Emmanuel. She's going so far as to secretly mortify herself by tightly tying a rope around her waist and sleeping on rocks. The punishment angers Honey, whose questions about the world outside and why everyone follows Emmanuel so blindly are becoming more pointed.
The girls are surprised by the arrival of Agnes' grandmother, Nana Pete, who usually comes during the summer but has poorly timed her visit to coincide with a significant Mount Blessing holiday, Ascension. Even though Honey is all but orphaned (her mother ran away from the community shortly after Honey was born), Nana Pete has always treated her like another grandchild. Nana finds out about the Room of Requirement, and then Agnes' younger brother Benny is in a terrible accident -- sustaining an injury that Emmanuel claims to have healed through a miracle. Nana Pete spirits him, Agnes and Honey away. As Agnes and Honey begin to experience the world outside Mount Blessing the rift in their friendship grows deeper.
This book rings utterly true. The girls are each seeking their place in the world, and their fears and questions seem so authentic. The escape from Mount Blessing is exactly that, as Nana Pete drives literally like a bat out of hell to get her grandchildren to safety. The novel never lets up this suspense, practically to the final pages. It asks some big questions, ones that are important to adolescents: When am I old enough to make decisions on my own? What do I do with what I know? The two girls are opposites in practically every way, but they come by their characters honestly. I can see how Mount Blessing made each of them.
It's my second audiobook in the last month where a child confronts a parent who deserted him/her. I got shivers again at the deep pain and honest anger coming from the child. (I hope it's not a spoiler to realize that Honey connects with a parent [I was wrong about which one, though!]).
Hearing that anger and pain comes in no small part from the young actress portraying Honey in this full cast production, Julie Swenson. All of Honey's frustrations at the limitations imposed upon her are clear in Swenson's dynamic and emotional reading. She has Honey's impetuousness and intelligence in her voice as well. Swenson's counterpart in this book with two narrators is Lydia Rose Shahan as Agnes. Shahan has the less showy part as Agnes' struggle is a more interior one but she is as confident a reader as Swenson. Her loneliness and confusion at being completely outside her comfort zone are vivid. And when the two girls start arguing, well ... they sound like teenage girls having a real slingfest.
Shahan and Swenson are ably backed up by the other members of the cast, but I need to single out humorous, avuncular Bruce Coville who is absolutely terrifying as Emmanuel. He bellows from deep in his chest when angry and has a preacher's authority when ministering more kindly to his flock. I also think Dianna Dorman as the crusty Texan Nana Pete and Trevor Hill as a mentally disabled character named Winky (who introduces Honey to butterflies) are particularly good.
For a Full Cast Audio production, the music was kind of ordinary -- just a little bit of a plink-y piano theme between chapters. Gloriously though, Nana Pete and her charges find themselves at an African American church because Agnes insists that they attend on Sunday, and a soaring hymn is sung on the recording by a singer named Agatha Devore [sp.?] and the All Saints Choir.
I'm having a little trouble parsing the title. Is Honey, the unsaintly one, the saint? Or is it Winky, who pretty much saves the day (setting the girls [the butterflies] free), but who is really a secondary character. I don't think it's Agnes. I'm not sure it really matters, except that I have to believe the author had someone in mind when she titled her book.
[The butterfly separating the heads of the two girls is a zebra longwing, one that Honey has been hoping to see one day. The photograph was taken by Tammy Powers and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
Narrated by Lydia Rose Shahan, Julie Swenson and the Full Cast Family
Full Cast Audio, 2011. 8:45