The Patron Saint of Butterflies is an apt title for a novel about two 14 year old girls who have never been allowed to fly free. Agnes and Honey live at the super strict religious commune Mt. Blessing where all outside influences are banned (no TV, no papers or books besides “The Saint’s Way”, barely any visitors) and thinking for yourself will get you sent to the Regulation Room for a beating by religious leader Emmanuel.
The novel is told in alternating chapters by Agnes, who is trying her hardest to be a saint (she fasts, ties a too-tight rope around her waist, and experiments with sleeping on rocks – all things saints apparently did) and Honey, whose one joy is a butterfly garden she tends to and whose sneak peeks at a forbidden TV have made her aware that Mt. Blessing is whacked, to say the least. After all, this is no normal faith-based commune: red and orange foods are banned (because the devil gave them their color), only adult men leave the commune to work at outside jobs (to both support the commune and Emmanuel’s expensive toys like a color TV, wine, and a car – he’s made exceptions for himself to his own rules) and kids are separated from their parents at 6 months until they are 7 years old to break the child/parent bond and have them fixate on Emmanuel.
Agnes and Honey both have distinct voices (and their own typeface) and friendship that feels authentic, but despite the novel being nearly 300 pages and more than half of it taking place in the “real world” after Agnes’ grandmother rescues them and Agnes’ younger brother, their characters feel a bit underdeveloped and one-note (Agnes is too stubborn, Honey too rebellious).
The novel tackles weighty issues: child abuse, brainwashing, death, and whether you should follow the commandment to honor your mother and father even if they are clearly wrong. Religion and faith are treated with respect (the drudgery of services at Mt. Blessing is nicely contrasted with a scene at a Baptist church in the south where the joy of worship is obvious) - it is those who would pervert the truth that are taken to task here. We don’t get much back story on enigmatic leader Emmanuel, but it’s obvious he’s BAD – he wants people to worship him more than God (he plays the part of Jesus during Ascension week), he’s a megalomaniacal hypocrite, and despite all of his exhortations about purity and avoiding temptation, he sends a 7 year old girl to live with a grown, single man.
Despite the heavy themes, this is a quick read with excellent pacing and a real sense of urgency. I enjoyed reading it very much.