Title: American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
Author: Joan Barthel
Source: from publisher for review
Review Summary: I liked the connection to modern women’s rights and enjoyed the descriptive writing but found the story disjointed and preachy.
Elizabeth Seton led a very full life. As part of an influential family, she interacted with many of the founding fathers and other important political figures. A brave voyage to Italy in search of a cure for her husband led to her conversion to Catholicism, despite the social stigma associated with being a Catholic. Both before and after her conversion, she helped lead charitable institutions devoted to helping women and as a Catholic, she fought for women’s rights within the church.
I loved the way the author started this book with an immediate connection to modern day women’s rights issues within the Catholic Church. I also enjoyed her storytelling. There were very vivid place descriptions, which I appreciated both for their beauty and their likely factual basis. I suspect determining the way a place looked in the past is much easier than verifying how people were feeling. That makes vivid descriptions a nice way to spice up narrative non-fiction without taking liberties with the facts. The author did a great job including direct quotes to cover the more personal aspects of the story, which also made the story seem more reliable and more vividly real.
Unfortunately, as the story progressed, the author began commenting on the direct quotes she shared. These comments often included the author’s interpretation of Elizabeth’s religious views and became annoyingly preachy. This interrupted the story, as did the author’s choice to skip around in time. Personally, I always prefer a story be told in chronological order, with no more than two timelines running at once. This book broke from that format in sometimes confusing ways. The strangely abrupt chapter endings didn’t help either. Despite the problems with the construction of the story, I thought this was pretty well done narrative non-fiction. The book seemed well written and well researched. Someone who was more interested in the details of Elizabeth Seton’s religious views and didn’t mind a bit of preaching might be able to enjoy this much more than I did. The book does also give a small but interesting glimpse of the modern Catholic Church, which could be of broader interest.