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When We Were Saints Hardcover – October 1, 2003
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Han Nolan spins a tale of religious fervor and adolescent searching in When We Were Saints, a compelling novel that allows readers to draw their own conclusions. The story centers on Archie Caswell, a 14-year-old southern boy whose best friend has recently moved away and whose grandfather has just died. Archie is awash in guilt over the circumstances of his granddaddys passing, but hes equally troubled by the old mans deathbed prophecy.
Enter Clare Simmons, a mysterious girl who fully believes she and Archie are modern-day saints. Abandoned by his former confidant and desperate for answers, Archie gets swept up in Clares appealing certainty--eventually following her all the way to New York City on a risky pilgrimage to see a crying statue of the Virgin Mary.
Nolan writes convincingly about personal struggles with faith--Archie is at times a blissful believer, at others plagued with doubt. In either state, Nolan helps us understand exactly why the young man feels the way he does. In the end, we join Archie in wondering if Clare is mentally ill, or if she does in fact have a direct line to a higher power. A captivating read, especially for teens trying to find their own way in the domain of religion and spirituality. (Ages 13 and older) --Brangien Davis
From School Library Journal
Grade 7 Up-Archie, 14, is a thorn in his Bible-thumping grandfather's side until, on his deathbed, he pokes Archie and utters his final words, "Young man, you are a saint." The teen is swayed into believing this might be a prophetic blessing by the arrival of the beautiful and enigmatic Clare, who declares that they are soul mates, inheritors of the spirit of the original Saints Francis and Clare. Archie is besotted by a powerful mixture of innocent longing and religious fervor while guilt-ridden that he might have caused his grandfather's death. He grows increasingly confused by Clare. Is she merely a masterful manipulator or is she driven by a devotion to a monastic life of simplicity, love, and forgiveness? Is she divine or crazy? Archie's newfound piety causes him to ignore important earthly human relationships and he and Clare set off on a pilgrimage to her "home," the Cloisters museum in New York City, by stealing his grandfather's truck and driving illegally. Archie is a caring and likable protagonist, a budding artist whose vulnerabilities are legion. Both teens are portrayed as being sincere, if over the top, in their search for religious fulfillment. Clare is clearly troubled, and by the end of the novel, she is institutionalized. The conclusion suggests that, for better or worse, the ecstatic "saint" Clare may someday return. This powerfully written novel is outstanding in terms of the intensity of the experience described. It may seem overlong to some young people but those teens with an interest in matters of faith will find it credible, scary, gripping, and gratifying.
Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
This book was a rollercoaster of a ride for me. There isn't a lot of action or crazy things happening, but it truly made me think. Archie's journey to sainthood is moving and made me think about religion in an entirely different way. That being said, this book is filled with the Catholic religion. I think that alone may make a lot of readers pass on this. I'm not particularly religious, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Nolan has created an unforgettable character in Archie. He is your average boy, but unique in the so many ways. His devotion to Clare is startling at times, but almost understandable. Clare herself is a startling character. Her complete, unwavering devotion to God is incredible and terrifying. Archie wants what she has and almost loses himself to find it. Their pilgrimage moved me to tears.
I couldn't even put the book down towards the end because I was so connected to Archie and I needed to know what was going to happen to him. It's impossible not to care for him. Archie is so young and naïve and he has so much love pouring out of him that I instantly felt connected with him. I never really felt that way with Clare, but I don't think the reader is supposed to. Clare is the catalyst for the pilgrimage and Archie's reason for wanting to be closer to God, but she does so much more than that for him. Their journey isn't just about finding God, it is about finding the goodness in humankind and becoming saintly in ways that aren't even related to religion.
When We Were Saints isn't a love story and it isn't necessarily a story about finding God either. It is a story about a boy finding himself. Archie goes on a pilgrimage to be closer to God, but he actually discovers the person he is and the person he wants to be. It is a moving, emotional journey that will stay with me for a long time.
Opening line: Archibald Lee Caswell had named the still he and his best friend, Armory Mitchell, had built in the basement of his grandparents' home The Last Hurrah, in honor of Armory, who was moving with his family to Washington, D.C.
Favorite line: Maybe that's all it really takes to be a saint - those simple acts of kindness.
A home-schooled fourteen-year-old living on a southern farm with his aged grandparents and saddened that his only friend is moving to Washington, D.C., Archibald Lee Caswell has enough to worry about.
But when Granddaddy Silas, the once-esteemed town prophet turned cursing drunkard, after falling to the ground upon having discovered Archie and his friend brewing alcohol in the basement, lies silent on his deathbed, Archie adds another concern to the list. In a moment of revelation--or was it hallucination?--Grandaddy Silas pokes his finger into Archie's stomach and speaks his final prophecy--or was it a curse?--"Young man, you are a saint!"
As Archie considers the meaning of his grandfather's final words, he struggles to define sainthood and discover the saint in himself, even as the reader questions the book's portrayal of religiosity and struggles to relate to Archie's story.
Confused, lost, wandering, Archie meets Clare Simpson, a mysterious, glowing girl who makes sense of his religious experience on the mountain, introduces him to a Gandhi-like lifestyle that guarantees closeness to God, insists on calling him Francis, and seems to have everything under control. Smitten with her beauty and believing that she is a saint, Archie follows Clare as a admiring and striving disciple.
The journey to sainthood culminates in a pilgrimage to the Cloisters in New York, where Clare reveals her plans of a life dedicated to God. Thinking theirs was a journey of spiritual revelation, Archie instead becomes increasingly aware of the problems with this extreme religiosity, this distorting of the Christian calling to be in the world, but not of the world.
Worried about his hospitalized grandmother who he has abandoned and about the rail-thin Clare's refusal to eat, Archie allows the reader to share in the story at last by gradually narrowing the gap between idealism and reality, as the reader's criticisms are actualized and authenticated by Archie's thoughts.
Though Nolan provides some clear examples of what a religious life is not, the book does not make clear what a religious life should be. Clare's convictions are only checked by Archie's uncertainties and her mother's atheistic worldview, not by any established, exemplary "saint." Again, what readers expect to find in a religious novel is abandoned: an obvious juxtaposition of saint and sinner, clear lines between not enough and too much, a moral and sense of certainty.
But perhaps uncertainty is just the point. The realism the reader rejoices to finally find in Archie demands an unsettling ending; a more certain conclusion or an easy solution would be untrue. Because religious belief includes miracles and mysteries, demands faith in things not seen and heard, and transcends reality, its adherents face some uncertainties.
Though the book may not appeal to all audiences, those who become its captivated readers will find a unique and powerful story and will not close the book without reexamining themselves, their religiosity, and the balance between reality and faith.