Children's Book Review: The Patron Saint of Butterflies

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante (Bloomsbury, $16.95, 978159902494/1599902494, ages 12-up, May)

In her first novel, Galante delves into the lives of two 14-year-old girls who take divergent paths while living in a religious commune: one rejects the leader Emmanuel's approach; the other embraces it without question. Agnes, whose parents took the names Isaac and Ruth when they joined Mount Blessing, yearns to be a saint. Honey, born just two weeks after Agnes, never knew her mother (who fled the commune) but has always felt close to Agnes, from the time they shared a crib. For Honey, "It's been a long year, watching and listening to my best friend turn into a robot-girl." Lately only Winky, who, like Honey, was left behind, shows her any kindness; he teaches her about the garden he creates to attract exotic butterflies. But when Agnes's Nana Pete comes to visit, two pivotal events occur that prompt the woman to take action. First, Nana Pete learns about the Regulation Room, where children are corporally disciplined for what Emmanuel deems to be acts of wrongdoing; and Honey and Agnes still bear the marks of the discipline they endured on the day she arrives. Second, Benny, Agnes's little brother, accidentally smashes his hand in a door so severely that his fingers are nearly severed. Rather than allow Benny to be taken to the hospital, Emmanuel insists that he can perform a "miracle" to heal the boy. Nana Pete secretly whisks Benny away to get medical help, taking Agnes and Honey along with her. Through the two girls' alternating first-person narratives, Galante conveys how confident Honey grows in her instincts not to trust Emmanuel, while Agnes becomes less sure of the things she's been taught, even as she tries to convince herself that Emmanuel and her pursuit of sainthood are right. As Galante mines this gray area, she conveys respect and understanding for this nearly universal adolescent experience of searching for answers. The author creates both suspense and tension as she explores, through these two very different yet credible characters, the importance of questioning and doubt as essential components of faith.--Jennifer M. Brown


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