The Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Freitas (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2008)
Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes (Hyperion, 2005)
Trouble by Gary Schmidt (Clarion Books, 2008)
Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2009)
AS A TEENAGER, I was given several novels in a series of inspirational young-adult (YA) books. On their pastel covers, modestly sweatshirted girls with big hair and worried expressions gazed into the distance. Between the covers, sweet-tempered heroines and their friends asked Jesus to help them deal with Issues the Youth are Facing Today: drinking, drugs, teen pregnancy, car wrecks, divorce, cancer. As I recall, the series author had thoughtfully selected one issue per book, so that in each volume, something awful was guaranteed to happen.
The series exemplified two of the pitfalls of YA fiction: a formulaic approach to the novel series and a heavy-handed focus on issues instead of characters and plot—the things that make fiction enjoyable to read. These pitfalls were by no means limited to writers of inspirational Christian fiction; in one popular series by Lurlene McDaniel, teenagers died, one after another, of cancer, maudlin tales my friends and I snapped up.
“If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter the subject,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. At the time, L’Engle was the only contemporary writer I knew whose young-adult books dealt with themes of faith without being didactic or condescending. She was able to do this, I think, because she took her young-adult novels seriously as novels. She didn’t want to improve her readers; she wanted to enthrall them.
Since that time, a lot has changed for the better in the YA category. Indeed, the whole definition of YA fiction seems to have broadened from books meant to help teenagers deal with issues to books that feature teenagers as protagonists, what used to be called “coming of age” stories—a broad term that encompassed almost any growing up a main character felt inclined to do. Today, a number of well-known literary adult writers are producing books intended for the YA shelves along with their other novels, as L’Engle did; on those shelves you’ll find books by Isabel Allende, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Sherman Alexie, whose heartbreaking and comic Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is a favorite of mine. Given the YA novelist’s newfound freedom, it seems worthwhile to look at who is following in L’Engle’s footsteps to take both art and faith seriously, and what new territory these writers are carving out.
Because the YA category is segmented by age (of protagonist, but not necessarily reader, as the hordes who have devoured the Harry Potter and Twilight series can attest), it is less segregated by genre. As a result, genre-bending and experimental forms are more likely to be shelved alongside the (presumably) more reader-friendly fiction. I’m thinking of writers like Karen Hesse and Marilyn Nelson, who can be found writing fiction-in-poems about the Dust Bowl and George Washington Carver.
Nikki Grimes’s Dark Sons uses the novel-in-verse form to weave two stories together—the biblical story of Ishmael and the modern story of Sam, a teenager in Brooklyn who finds out, to his dismay, that his father and new stepmom are having a baby. “Why this twenty-five-year-old / Snow White, / all light eyed / and tousled tresses?” he wonders. He feels that the baby, David, is meant to replace him in his father’s affections, just as the new white stepmom has replaced his mother.
In alternating sections, Ishmael and Sam watch their families’ centers shift away from them. They question God’s wisdom in allowing their fathers to abandon them, especially since God doesn’t seem to have punished or abandoned their fathers. Ishmael watches Abraham speak with Jehovah, then build a cairn “to mark yet another site / where God answered Father / out loud,” even though Ishmael himself hears only “a rush of wind.” Sam questions God and his father directly: “I’ve still got issues with God, sure— / and I plan to keep on going / to His house to tell Him so.”
Sam’s sections of the book read like free-verse diaries, heavy on narration, while Ishmael’s sections are more lyrical, grounded in story, yet focused on complex emotional moments. Grimes reimagines the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs as complex characters whose feelings for each other change: one day Sarah invites Ishmael and Hagar into her tent, and the next Hagar comes home with a bruise in the shape of Sarah’s handprint on her face. The immediacy of Sam’s hurt brings Ishmael’s pain to life, even as Ishmael’s story sheds light on Sam’s predicament. Toward the end of the book Sam discovers the story of Ishmael in his daily devotions and finds comfort in it, investing in Ishmael the hope that “You made it / in the end / and so will I.”
Perhaps less formally experimental than Grimes, Gary Schmidt shares an interest in the messy relationship between past and present. In Schmidt’s work, that past is often the shadow-side of Wasp culture. Schmidt often writes historical fiction, but Trouble is set in modern New England. Henry Smith’s father tells him, “If you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.” What he means is that their house, built in 1678 in the quietly wealthy hamlet of Blythbury-by-the-Sea, with a view out over their own private beach, is safe from the storms other, less fortunate people face. But storms come. The burned-out, wrecked hull of a seventeenth-century slave ship washes up on that pristine private beach. And, setting in motion the novel’s biggest storm, Henry’s brother Franklin is hit by a truck, a truck that contains Chay Chouan, a Cambodian immigrant kid who goes to Franklin’s blueblooded prep school and lives in the next town over. The incident unleashes racial tension in Blythbury-by-the-Sea, and Henry wishes for nothing more than to escape the ugly words and behavior—as well as his family’s dysfunction and grief. He sets out to climb Mount Katahdin, a trip he was supposed to take with Franklin, and gets picked up hitchhiking by none other than Chay Chouan.
As in Schmidt’s previous Newbery-honor novels, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars, the main character struggles with ethical questions raised by the latent racism in Wasp culture. Once you’re faced with the flipside of the privileged life your parents tried to make for you, what are you going to do? In Henry’s struggle, faith is a steady, abiding presence—a lodestar not always followed but sometimes relied on. Yet Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church, where their family has owned a pew for generations, is mostly empty. Trouble is a more troubled novel than Lizzie Bright or The Wednesday Wars and doesn’t achieve the light, dryly witty tone that’s so pleasurable in them. But Schmidt’s voice remains piercing and unsentimental, with no neatly packaged endings; Henry and Chay don’t become best pals, and their attempts at friendship are awkward and often thwarted. When Henry’s journey at last brings him to Katahdin, he climbs “with an ache and with happiness all mixed together,” finding it a difficult journey, but a worthwhile climb nonetheless.
The journey of the Christian life is the subject of Donna Freitas’s novel The Possibilities of Sainthood, and the book’s narrator, Antonia Lucia Labella, has some unusual ideas about her journey and her destination. Her goal is to become the first official living Catholic saint, and she regularly petitions the Vatican with ideas for new saints (the Patron Saint of Figs and Fig Trees, the Patron Saint of People who Make Pasta, the Patron Saint of Kissing), humbly offering herself as a candidate. But her saintly ambitions don’t stop her from wanting one of the cute boys at Bishop Francis (the Catholic boys’ school across the parking lot from her Catholic girls’ school) to kiss her. The two desires aren’t unrelated: “Perhaps it would help with the kissing,” Antonia muses, “if I was beatified (i.e., beautified) by the Vatican first.”
Antonia’s enthusiastic devotion to the saints—and to the boys—infuses this novel with energy. Antonia is aware of the tension between her ambition to become a saint and her ambition to get her first kiss, and she’s more than willing to tell her readers all about it:
I should mention in yet another act of painful self-revelation, my family had donated the statue of The Virgin (you know—that Virgin) in my name in honor of my birth…. Ever since I was old enough to “appreciate” this gesture I’d worried that having my name immortalized under the Immaculate One had done permanent damage to my chances of ever becoming un-immaculate.
While Freitas’s touch is lighthearted, hints at the problematic relationship between Christianity and sexuality (especially female sexuality) keep popping up. Her treatment of these matters is informed by her academic work: Freitas is a religion professor at Boston University, and her most recent monograph is Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. But these themes are handled deftly; Antonia’s life is not didactic, in spite of her desire to be a spiritual model. Instead, her thoughts and plans often go awry in entertaining ways. Describing a moment at mass when a boy makes eyes at her across the pews, Antonia tells us: “Anyway, I sat there, blushing but trying to look cool, glancing through the Glory and Praise to Our God songbook, while at the same time I wanted to shout, ‘Take me now, Andy! I don’t care if Father Bernardino is transubstantiating the bread and the wine!’” And when Saint Augustine responds to a petition in a way Antonia doesn’t expect, she’s left frustrated with both enterprises (“You’d think the former fourth-century Don Juan would know better—what women liked and all”).
Still, the ever-energetic Antonia pours herself into a creative spirituality. She makes little works of art as part of her devotions, binders filled with pictures and holy cards and prayers to her favorite saints. She’s more than willing to critique the apparent datedness of certain religious customs (“There is a patron saint against twitching, but not against getting grounded. What is that about?”), and her awareness of the difficulties of making religion relevant to the lives of teenagers only strengthens the book.
For Samara Taylor, the pastor’s-kid protagonist of Sara Zarr’s Once Was Lost, the religion she’s grown up with has started to seem completely irrelevant. Her alcoholic mother is in a distant rehab center following a DUI arrest, and the high schooler is stuck at home with her father, an evangelical pastor who has long been more emotionally involved with his parishioners than with Samara and her mom. When Samara looks around the church’s youth room, she notices the disconnect between the overly cheerful Community Happens! poster on the wall, which shows “a bunch of multi-cultural-looking teens in fashions from five years ago, falling all over each other on comfy couches” and the reality: “our monocultural faces, which are sort of smiling, but not nearly as happily as the poster faces. Mine least of all.” She’s disappointed and disillusioned by the church, but even more so by her father. When Jody Shaw, a younger girl from the junior-high youth group, goes missing, it only exacerbates the tensions in Samara’s family, especially the distance between Samara and her father. Watching him go into crisis mode, she feels like she might as well be viewing him from another planet:
He was strangely calm-looking, his tan face smooth, his hair in place, jaw set. It dawned on me that in a way he’s been prepping for a tragedy like this all his life; he’s like an actor getting his ultimate role. For someone whose career is believing in God and convincing other people to, this is exactly the kind of thing that would give him a chance to really prove that everything he’s been saying is true. I don’t mean it like he’s faking it. I just mean I looked at him last night and saw he was ready. Like everything else, even what’s happened with Mom, has been practice.
Samara’s clear view of her dad’s failings doesn’t let up. Yet, in spite of her sense of alienation, she finds herself being drawn into the church community and how it works at a time of crisis. She helps search for Jody out in the eastern California desert. She bakes brownies with the youth group and brings them over to the family. Eventually, she’s able to share some of her struggles.
Nevertheless, this young-adult heroine is a far cry from the perm-haired princesses of eighties and nineties inspirational YA, who steadfastly told their boyfriends they were saving themselves for marriage. For one thing, her struggles have very little to do with the modesty-purity-industrial-complex being preached at evangelical teenagers across America. For another, she’s angry—at God and at her dad. But as she works on her own growing up, she’s able to find a faith that makes sense to her, even if her sense of God’s presence doesn’t smooth away all problems. When she does sense God’s presence at last, her description feels authentic to her character:
It’s comfort, it’s words but not words, it’s a song, it’s warm hands around my heart. And even though Jody is gone and my mom isn’t cured and my dad isn’t here, even when he is…despite all that, I’m not scared.
I wonder how I would have felt if I’d had the chance to encounter a fictional protagonist like Samara when I was a teenager. Would I have been shocked more by her cynicism or her candor? Would I have been relieved to encounter a character whose doubts were similar to the ones I was just beginning to voice? I like to think I’d have appreciated her honesty. In any case, I’m grateful I got to meet her as an adult. I still struggle to voice my doubts to God in prayer, and Samara’s frankness is more instructive than a host of issues-driven novels. As Zarr and others in this newer crop of writers continue to weave doubt and faith together in artfully crafted YA fiction, it will be a pleasure to see how they continue to expand the boundaries of their form—and the boundaries of faith—for the better.
—Reviewed by Hannah Faith Notess
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.