Sunday, October 16, 2011
REVIEW: Saint Training
Appetizer: It's the spring of 1967 and sixth grader Mary Clare O'Brian has begun to write letters to the Mother Superior of a convent asking for advice. Mary Clare has the goal of becoming a saint. But with all the daily complications of having to look after her many brothers and sisters, her mother's fascination with reading The Feminine Mystique and a competition to write an essay on "What a religious vocation means to me...," Mary Clare is having trouble living up to her saintly aspirations.
She starts to realize how complicated life can be. Not only in terms of being good, but also in terms of her own family. Her mom, who is pregnant for the umpteenth time, wants to do other work than caring for her many kids at home and Mary Clare is left to do a lot of the work of caring for her siblings and wondering how her family can afford to care for another child. One of her brothers wants to enlist to go to Vietnam with his best friend, while another older brother wants to get status as a conscientious objector to the war.
The author, Elizabeth Fixmer, does an excellent job of presenting Mary Clare's faith as she goes from blind obedience and making deals with God to questioning aspects of Catholicism, earning "saint points" and beginning to view how complicated issues of faith in the real world can be.
For a reader who might not be very religious, a lot of the Catholicism could be a little overwhelming. I also felt like an older reader or adult would have to explain a bit about feminism for a younger reader to get the book. (In fact, the only aspect of this book that might not have to be discussed, is the historical setting. This book was a little too history--light for my personal tastes. Especially since the opening paragraph is about racial tensions and how Mary Clare imagined herself providing support to a black student she imagined being integrated at her Catholic school. I felt like a promise made early in the story was dropped, allowed to roll under a chair and forgotten until the very end.)
My favorite part of Saint Training was the exchange of letters between Mary Clare and Sister Monica. As the story continued, Mary Clare began to ask a lot of important questions. I found this very engaging.
But toward the end of the book, this also became frustrating, because Mary Clare revealed major plot developments in her letters without them being mentioned in the narration before. I found myself flipping back and forth between pages, wondering if I had missed something.
Overall, I liked that Saint Training took on issues of faith and social justice. I liked Mary Clare's childlike faith and the way that she took on adult concerns and worries over her family. But I did find some of the religion and jumps in the narrative to be a bit overwhelming at times.
"March 25, 1967
Dear Reverend Mother.
My name is Mary Clare O'Brian. I am in sixth grade and I am writing because I want to become a Good Shepherd nun. I like the Good Shepherd nuns best because you work with unwed mothers and their babies. I love little babies." (p. 7)
"Mary Clare finished her Social Studies test and turned it upside down to wait for the rest of the class. It was easy, mostly easy, and on the subject that Mary Clare had heard a lot about at home around the dinner table: civil rights. She couldn't believe that Negroes had to sit on the back of the bus in the South and even drink from different water fountains. They were fighting for basic rights, especially the right to vote. Mary Clare liked to imagine that a Negro girl entered her very class at Saint Maria Goretti School. She would show her around, become her friend, even hold the drinking fountain on for her.
Now her face scrunched into a yawn she fought to control. She was tired from being up almost all night--first listening to her parents fight, then praying for the perfect plan to make things better for her family. After she came up with the perfect plan, she couldn't sleep at all.
She was going to become a saint." (p. 11)
"Lord, help my family. Please, please give us enough money so Mom and Dad can be happy again.
She stopped. She was sick of this prayer. Why wasn't God answering? HE used to answer her prayers all the time." (p. 15)
"Now she knew the problem: God would only listen to her if her soul was pure. If she was going to make her mother happy again, she would have to be a saint right away.
She made a plan. She would study, she would practice saint-like behavior, and she would become a nun. Many of the girl saints had been nuns before being sainted, so she figured becoming a nun was the perfect stepping stone to her real goal. She'd be so darned good she wouldn't have a thing to confess on Saturdays.
Mary Clare explained the deal to God. If you take care of my family--give them enough money, make my parents happy...I'll become a saint. She repeated it several times in case it was hard for God to hear through all of her sins." (p. 16)
"Don't just tell them what you think they want to hear, Mary Clare. Don't get into the roles everybody expects from a woman--where your identity is what the Church tells you it should be. 'God's servant, and God's bride'...that's all part of the feminine mystique," she said. "Everybody knows what nuns do and the vows they take. Go inside your heart and tell them who you are."
Mary Clare was confused. She didn't know what the feminine mystique was, and she was pretty sure that to win this contest she had to pretty much say what the judges wanted to hear, but she did want to be real." (p. 79)
Tasty Rating: !!!