American Saint is the biography of Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the first American citizen to be canonized in the Roman Catholic Church. Based upon thorough research, Joan Barthel recreates life in 18th-century New York City, where Elizabeth came of age in the highest circles of society as a devout Episcopalian. From early childhood, her path was marked by the deaths of key family members, a melancholy pattern which would continue until her own death from tuberculosis in 1821. Every sorrow only served to bring Elizabeth closer to God.
The book explores Elizabeth’s personal struggles, from her youthful temptation to suicide to her love for her friend Antonio Filicchi. As a fairly new convert to Catholicism, Elizabeth, a widow with five young children, took on the monumental task of founding a congregation of sisters and a school for girls in the wilderness which was Emmitsburg, Maryland. The drawback is the author’s attempt to portray Elizabeth as a forerunner of the contemporary “nuns on a bus,” inserting a modern spirit of rebellion into the life of a person who, in spite of her pioneer spirit, strove for obedience to her Church. Other than such anachronistic misunderstandings, it is a fine portrait of a courageous woman.
(This article originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Historical Novels Review.)
(*NOTE: This book was sent to me by the Historical Novel Society in exchange for my honest opinion.)