Honey and Agnes were born just days apart at the Mount Blessing religious commune in Connecticut. They shared a crib and then a small bed until they turned seven, the age at which all children are returned to their parents.
Because Honey's mother ran out on her a few days after her birth, Emmanuel, the group's leader, sent the girl to live with Winky, the handyman and gardener, who is considered a bit slow, though harmless. Agnes moved in with her parents, and later her little brother, Benny, also lived in their house. Despite being separated, the two girls remained best of friends and shared everything. In fact, when Agnes's grandmother, Nana Pete, made her yearly visit, she treated Honey as if she were family.
Unfortunately, by the time the girls are fourteen, they have started to go down separate paths. Agnes wants nothing more than to be a saint, praying daily for a vision or miracle and making personal sacrifices. Honey, on other hand, has seen Winky's forbidden portable black and white TV and knows that Mount Blessing is not part of mainstream America. All Honey wants to do is escape, and as a consequence, she is constantly in trouble with Emmanuel.
When Nana Pete makes a surprise visit to the commune during their most holy and sacred week, she witnesses a terrible accident and is forced to put into action a daring plan to protect the children, but one that could destroy the community. Honey sees only possibilities, but Agnes is scared and worries about sinning and Emmanuel's anger.
Cecilia Galante's The Patron Saint of Butterflies is a frightful look at life on a religious commune, told by Honey and Agnes in alternating chapters. Emmanuel holds all the power at Mount Blessing and rarely lets his followers forget that because he walks the path of true faith, God has given him the ability to work miracles. What happens to children who have been indoctrinated from birth? Who could have the strength to question God's will?
Galante, drawing on her own childhood experiences in a closed community, writes with terrifying authority. The details of daily life and the attitude of the believers will make you shudder, and the vivid characterizations make the story personal. Although The Patron Saint of Butterflies is marketed to a young teen audience, I was so emotionally engaged, I couldn't put the book down.
Galante makes you think about difficult issues, such as what is the meaning of freedom of religion? Is there ever a time when people shouldn't be allowed to worship in the way they deem correct? You'll also think about parenthood and guardianship and who has the right to determine what is best for children. And on a related note, you'll wonder how old kids need to be before they can make decisions about their own life.
The Patron Saint of Butterflies won multiple well-deserved awards and recognition, including being a Book Sense Pick and an Oprah's Book Club Teen Reading List Selection. To learn more about Cecila Galante, visit her website, where you can read what her father thought of the novel.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition of the bookl (Full Cast Audio, 9 hr) read by Lydia Rose Shahan and Julie Swenson as the girls, along with a full cast of narrators for the other characters. For my audio review, see the AudioFile magazine website.
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