American Saint

March 13, 2014 Biography, History, non-fiction 4

17934383Title: American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
Author: Joan Barthel
Source: from publisher for review
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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.



4 Responses to “American Saint”

  1. Christine @Buckling Bookshelves

    Oh boy has this brought on a flashback…I went to Catholic school and in fourth grade we had a “Biography Day” and were assigned a historical/religious figure to research, dress up as, and speak in front of the class about. I got Elizabeth Ann Seton. I don’t think I could bring myself to read this book, all these years later LOL The story sounds interesting enough, but I think the things that bugged you would probably bug me too.
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    • DoingDewey

      What a coincidence! I feel like I’d heard of her before picking this up, but I’m not sure when I would have learned about her. It was an interesting story, but not a biography I’d especially recommend.

  2. Aylee

    Hmm yeah, I wouldn’t appreciate the inclusion of he author’s comments and skipping around in time. I do like that it tells a very important story though. I’m actually not familiar with Elizabeth Seton so this would be enlightening, as was your review!
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    • DoingDewey

      I was pretty disappointed with the execution because I also thought this was an important story to tell. The intro was particularly relevant because it covered recent attempts by the male catholic leaders to take control away from women’s catholic groups which take a progressive stance on women’s issues, like contraceptives. Even as a non-Catholic, that’s an issue I’d like to read more about.