Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Of Butterflies and Cults

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
3(.5)Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Agnes, Honey, and Benny know no other way of life than the one they have at Mount Blessing. Agnes wants no other life. Honey is desperate to leave. But nobody leaves Mount Blessing. Not without Emmanuel's permission, anyhow. Everything at Mount Blessing runs according to Emmanuel's wishes. He is, after all, as close to God as a human being can get. It is Emmanuel everyone desperately tries to please. It is Emmanuel who rewards, and it is Emmanuel who punishes.

The day Nana Pete arrives for an unexpected visit is a day that Emmanuel has punished Honey and Agnes, leaving welts on their bodies and bruises on their souls. Agnes is agonized because she has, once again, fallen short of the example of her namesake, Saint Agnes. She strives to be a saint, but she all too often sins. Honey isn't agonized. She's outraged. All she did was kiss a boy. Is that such a crime? Is it truly deserving of the welts and the "HARLOT" scrawled across her back? Nobody speaks of the Regulation Room, where all of this punishment takes place. Nobody, that is, until Benny lets something slip to a horrified Nana Pete, who resolves to take her grandchildren and Honey off the commune before they can be harmed again. But before she has the chance to put any sort of plan into action, Benny is in a horrible accident. Instead of allowing an ambulance to be called, Emmanuel declares that he will pray over Benny and thus heal him. His followers have no doubt that he can do this, but Nana Pete is appalled. Now she is even more determined to get the children out. Honey is only too happy to help. Soon the five leave the Mount Blessing compound, four of them for the very first time.

Agnes is horrified and furious when she learns that Nana Pete has no intention of bringing them back. What will Emmanuel say? What will he do? Leaving Mount Blessing without his blessing...nothing he's ever done to them in the Regulation Room before will touch what will happen when he finally tracks them down and brings them back. Even worse, outside of Mount Blessing, wickedness is everywhere. It's in the music, it's in the clothing, it's in the food, it's on the television. How can one ever hope to achieve a saintly life when evil is everywhere you look? Honey doesn't see the world that way at all. She is rapturous in the freedom she now has, away from Emmanuel's ridiculous restrictions. Though she misses Winky, her guardian, and the butterfly garden they both tend, she can only look forward now. Being in a world where it's not a sin to think your own thoughts or kiss a boy...that's her kind of heaven on earth.

Neither Agnes nor Honey expects what they find at the end of this road trip, which brings them to Nana Pete's daughter, the woman whose name is not allowed spoken at Mound Blessing. Amid tragedy, secrets are revealed, new understandings are made, and faith is restored and redefined.

Much of this book is very well done. Told from both Agnes's and Honey's perspectives, the two voices are distinct and believable. Agnes's struggle to be as saint-like as possible could have made her a tiresome, unlikable character. But her honest faith and her despair at never being able to be reach the level of goodness she strives for makes her a sympathetic character, though many readers will probably share Honey's frustration that she simply does not understand how brainwashed she has been by Emmanuel. More readers will probably empathize with Honey, who has never succumbed to Emmanuel's magnetism. Honey wants freedom, friendship, beauty, and love, and she knows that the world outside of Mount Blessing offers her those things. The interactions between these two life-long friends as they negotiate their different views on their lives so far and their lives in the future is particularly well done. Both girls are allowed to score valid points as they explore their feelings about religion and faith and what it means to believe.

The nuances and strengths of other parts of the book made it quite disappointing when Galante settled for a too-easy solution to one of the book's main questions (and therefore, one of its main dilemmas). When I got the first hint of where she was heading, I actually groaned and said aloud to a lunchroom companion that I couldn't believe she was going there. This one plot element weakened the book as a whole, rather like a wobbly leg makes a table less than sturdy. Though still fine to look at, the table doesn't support all the weight it was designed to bear. She handled the ambiguities of the faith discussion so well that I was surprised to find her settling for the easy way out in this situation.

While this won't be everyone's cup of tea and I don't expect it to fly off the shelf, I think it will have an audience. I would not be surprised to hear a teen recommending it to another, and I can easily see it being used in book discussion groups.

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