I love conversion stories, they are the best kind of romance. When I find a good one online (and aren’t they all good?) I devour the whole thing. Even if it’s pages and pages long. Leap of Faith by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a great conversion story. There aren’t many novels that explore the faith of young people. Especially not faith in its nascent stages as doubt gives way to yearning. And then yearning leads to the moment when the leap is made:
Why couldn’t I believe that Jesus was the Son of God? All of a sudden I wanted to, more than anything. I wanted to be baptized and forgiven and blessed. I wanted to hold the Eucharist and realize that it really was the body of Christ. I wanted all that.
I was wide awake again. I looked at my script. No answers there. I thrashed around for a while, trying to make my pillow more comfortable, and then I took another deep breath and followed Mrs. Brashares’s advice.
I talked to Jesus.
In the middle of the night, I emptied everything out of my mind except this one thing, this wanting to believe. I held onto that. And then I talked to someone I didn’t believe existed, someone I didn’t believe could answer.
“Jesus, I said, “I’d really like to believe.”
Nothing happened. No lightning, no clap of thunder. I didn’t get knocked out of my bed the way Paul got knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus. I waited. I quieted my mind, shooed away all the thoughts of Paul and Mrs. Brashares and horses and Damascus and Ruthie and my parents. I started to feel sleepy again.
Then I heard, quiet but clear like a tiny bell, an answer.
When in the first week of sixth grade Abigail gets herself kicked out of public school, her non-religious parents enroll her in Catholic school while warning the parish priest that they’d better not try to convert her.
Angry that her parents don’t listen to her, Abigail retaliates. First, by enrolling in drama instead of an academic elective and then by deciding to become Catholic. In drama class Abigail befriends Chris and finds freedom in putting on the characters she plays. And, although her Wednesday night “Catholic classes” begin as an act of rebellion, as Easter approaches Abigail begins to have qualms about accepting baptism when she doesn’t believe in God. Those qualms lead her to ask questions and those questions lead to her leap of faith.
There is no cheap grace in the novel. Abigail struggles with anger and forgiveness and mixed motives and until the very end she still has doubts. But she learns that struggling with doubts is a part of faith. The Catholics Abigail encounters are honest with her, willing to say ‘I don’t know,’ and always gentle in allowing her true freedom of choice without coercion. They give her room to doubt but also encourage her gently to learn, to explore, to grow, all while making sure she knows that they won’t think less of her if she decides not to go through with her baptism.
I loved that Abigail’s parents are not cardboard villains. Instead, they are overachieving professionals who in their drive for success have lost their ability to focus on their daughter. In the course of the novel they begin to try to refocus, even if they do so ineptly and with mixed results. In fact, all of the characters, even the bit players, feel human. None of them are reduced to stereotypes, with the possible exception of the bully who was responsible for Abigail’s expulsion. But even there the situation is revealed to be more complicated than simply that of an evil bully and innocent victim.
I also found it refreshing that Abigail’s friendship with Chris is allowed to develop and deepen but never becomes anything more than friendship. Not all relationships between girls and boys need to be romantic and in fact I’d argue that in sixth grade none of them should be.
I always cry at baptisms, especially at the Easter vigil and so it was no surprise that the end of the book found tears streaming down my face. Bradley captures the glory and awe of the vigil mass and the baptism perfectly through the eyes of the new convert who doesn’t understand everything she sees and hears but who nevertheless gets what it’s all about.
Finally, I simply can’t not share one of my favorite scenes—favorite because of the way the heroine so nicely deflates one of my pet peeves: parents who pretend they don’t want to impose belief on their children, all the while with the intention of keeping their children away from all faith:
“Am I baptized?”
“No.” My mother, who’d come into the room halfway through our conversation, answered. “You’re not.”
My father heaved a dramatic sigh. My mother said, “Why would we, honey? It’s not important to us. Plus, we decided it’s wrong to impose any kind of religious beliefs on you. We wanted you to be able to grow up and choose for yourself.”
As soon as she said that, her mouth dropped open just a little bit. A-ha. The opening I needed.
“Good,” I said, “because now I’m grown up enough and this is my choice.”
It was the end of the argument, and we all knew it. Logic was the only god my father ever worshiped.
And if I had any doubts about my plan to become Catholic—any little worries over the fact that I didn’t believe in God—well, they pretty much faded away. Because the plan worked: Right then, I had my father’s full attention. For the first time in years, he may have actually listened to me.*
* This review is based on a galley proof, an advance, uncorrected text, not the final, published version.
This review is cross-posted at Love2Learn