The Strength of Saints


"Inside me, in a new place, sore with growth, I felt the solid weight of strength holding me up, pushing me forward to face what was sure to come next."

Nissa Bergen is growing up...and finding that she's growing apart from childhood friends and facing adult decisions. Her hometown is changing too. Northerners have settled in Harper, Louisiana, and have opened a cannery. With the new population, new resources — like more schools — are needed. But there's growing racial tension, with threats of violence that may ...

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"Inside me, in a new place, sore with growth, I felt the solid weight of strength holding me up, pushing me forward to face what was sure to come next."

Nissa Bergen is growing up...and finding that she's growing apart from childhood friends and facing adult decisions. Her hometown is changing too. Northerners have settled in Harper, Louisiana, and have opened a cannery. With the new population, new resources — like more schools — are needed. But there's growing racial tension, with threats of violence that may come back to hurt Nissa, who created the town's "separate-but-equal" libraries.

Nissa is faced with a chance to be a hero, and like a true hero, she just wants to do what's right. But doing what's right is never easy. Not even for saints.

In 1936, fourteen-year-old Nissa takes a stand against racial prejudice and for her own integrity and independence, drawing on the support of her individualistic mother, her father, stepmother, and some of the inhabitants of their Louisiana town.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Strength of Saints by A. LaFaye (The Year of the Sawdust Man and Nissa's Place) continues the story of Nissa Bergen. As a growing population challenges the resources and long-held beliefs of her racially divided town, the young heroine, creator of "separate but equal" libraries, must confront the difficulties head on. (June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
LaFaye offers a thoughtful, warm-hearted picture of a wacky family in Harper, Louisiana, during the Depression. Readers of Year of the Sawdust Man (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and Nissa's Place (1999) will welcome back Nissa Bergen as she continues to grow up living with her father, stepmother, and new baby sister. She has started a library in her hometown, but it has two entrances, and she must continually assure her white customers that the books they are taking are "clean," not handled by colored patrons. Nissa finds this segregation troublesome, and so does her mother, who returns to a town she vowed never to live in again. She fears violence when Nissa finally decides to do what is right with the library—serve all equally. Trouble comes to a head when Nissa builds a bookmobile and delivers books at lunch to the newly built factory. Her refusal to look at people by their color puts her in a dangerous position and the town on the brink of racial violence. Issues of poverty, segregation, racial hate, and change are woven throughout this story in a lyrical and attention-grabbing way. Nissa and her friends are all well-developed characters with defined spaces within a changing community. Historical topics such as racism and industrialization are handled with empathy and clear understanding. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2002, Simon & Schuster, 192p,
— Susan Allen
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-LaFaye's tale describes life in small-town Louisiana when racial tensions are escalating. Neither the 1936 time period nor the setting is particularly well defined. Very few details other than geographical names indicate a southern locale. Plot and theme are developed slowly through the too-mature musings of 14-year-old Nissa Bergen, who attempts to support racial equality by creating two separate but equal libraries, the East and West Libraries, housed in the same building, despite her fears that some of the town's known Klan members might burn it down with her in it. Her independent spirit is supposedly explained by the fact that she is the newspaper editor's daughter. After enjoying the much more liberal atmosphere of city life, her eccentric mother inexplicably returns to support her daughter. Encouraged by the woman's independent spirit, Nissa continues to patronize her black friend's cafe, to serve her library patrons equally, and to uphold "right" much like a Louisiana Joan of Arc of 1936. The book climaxes with a terrible fire set indirectly by racists. The new factory, which has been the salvation of most of the townspeople, is destroyed and Nissa saves the day. It's all a bit unbelievable.-Susan Cooley, Tower Hill School, Wilmington, DE Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416958697
  • Publisher: Aladdin
  • Publication date: 6/21/2007
  • Pages: 192
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author

A. LaFaye (the "A" is for Alexandria) is the author of Worth, for which she received the Scott O'Dell Award, as well as The Year of the Sawdust Man, Nissa's Place, The Strength of Saints, Edith Shay, Strawberry Hill, and Dad, in Spirit. She teaches at California State University at San Bernardino during the school year and at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, in the summer. She lives in Cabot, Arkansas.

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Table of Contents


Worry Walking

Lies We'd Like to Believe

Rings and Rumors

The Truth in Pieces

The Gathering Storm

Mirrors and Angles

Friends and Foes

Old-Fashioned and Peculiar

Growing Truths

Doing the Right Thing

Good Sense Gone

Lost and Found

Time and Changes

The Changing of the Guard


Strength in Prayer

Staying Safe

The Battle


Friends, Family, & Fire

The Right Thing by Degrees

Ideas That Grow


Trials, Traveling Schoolhouses, and Changes Yet to Come

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First Chapter

Chapter One: Worry Walking

Papa was in trouble. Not in a devil's-going-to-chase-him-down sort of way. Truth be told, I wasn't right certain what pulled Papa out of bed to pace the upstairs hallway. Any number of things could've been the culprit. In the spring of '36, he had a new baby daughter under our roof -- young Miss Lily Maeve, with her sausage link toes -- he might've been worrying after her welfare. My baby brother, Benjamin, died as an itty-bitty thing. Born sickly, he never did grow into his health. The thought that Lily might fall sick haunted him. The idea of it settled into Papa's heart when his new wife, Lara, went into labor near about a month early. On the day of Lily's birth Dr. Swenson had to swear on his soul to get Papa to believe that the baby would be just fine. That promise still didn't strangle Papa's fears. They cropped back up like nasty old weeds anytime Lily so much as sneezed.

Papa got so frenzied, Dr. Swenson took to stopping by our place on his way to the office he keeps in the train station. Lara had a cup of tea with lemon and pepper sitting on the porch post each morning. Papa'd bring Lily Maeve out and act like he just wanted to say how do. Dr. Swenson would scoop that baby girl up. In making a show of tickling her and teasing her, he'd give her a right quick examination. Those morning visits kept Papa sane.

Papa didn't forget about me amongst all his worrying over Lily Maeve. No, he fretted over me, too. My health had him concerned as well, but not in the same fashion. I hadn't so much as had a cold for as long as we could both remember. The trouble with me was that I ran the town libraries. Not such a dangerousthing on the face of it, but since I checked books out to colored folks and white folks alike in a town like Harper, Louisiana, I took as many risks as a fool who decided to build a house on the Carolina coastline in the middle of hurricane season.

Knowing the folks in Tucumsett Parish had a reputation for taking a match to places where the color line wasn't carefully observed, I'd divided Lara's old house right down the middle, making the libraries of Harper -- both East and West. Invoking the old separate-but-equal law -- heavy on the equal -- appeased most folks, but there were a whole mess of fools in town who figured they had a right to ask who'd been reading the books they checked out.

Why, one day, Mrs. Linzy, our pastor's wife, brought some silly old novel up to me and asked, "Is this here book clean, Nissa?"

Figuring she had her mind on sneezing, I said, "I can't keep this one on the shelves long enough for it to collect dust, Mrs. Linzy."

"I'm not talking about dust, child." She darted her eyes over to the door that leads to the West Harper Library.

Knowing Mrs. Linzy didn't get her idea of unclean things out of any Bible, I said, "Why, this here book is as clean as a newly baptized baby."

In fact it'd been in close proximity to such a child. Mrs. Villeneuve, who can trace her ancestry straight to Crispus Atticus, had the book in her lap when they christened Otis Dupree's little niece Avida at Revival Baptist the Sunday before last.

Of course I didn't tell mean old Mrs. Linzy any such thing. She left the library smiling and nodding, convinced her little white hands were safe.

I'd divided that library for safety's sake, but I wasn't about to keep books from folks who wanted to read them on account of the silly ideas of some soul-clouded white folks. But Papa feared I'd get caught up in my generosity one day and somebody would cinch it around my neck like a noose. This particular fear had Papa listening to every little story he heard about the libraries, as if he might be hearing reports coming back from some battlefield where his family fought for their lives.

Worrying after children is a natural part of being a papa, true enough, but that's not all that weighed on Papa's soul that spring. If prosperity were a well, then Harper's was running close to drying up. Money became more precious than water in a desert long about then. Many folks used to work in the mine across the way in Mississippi. That place had closed down near about two years earlier. Few of those folks ever found another job. The Journiettes had to cut back on their planting on account of the poor cotton prices. They didn't hire on near as many people anymore. The Minkies over at the mercantile across the street had cut off credit. They were running a cash only business. Mr. Hess, who owned the paper where Papa worked, had to cut his production in half after folks started to cancel their subscriptions. Papa had a new mouth to feed on less money once he went to working every other day.

Even that didn't stop Papa from being generous. On Saturdays, Papa helped the Minkies stock their shelves since they didn't have any family of their own and they'd started feeling their age in their joints. But they asked him to stop coming in on account of the fact they didn't have goods to spare. Mr. Minkie said it didn't seem right for such hardworking hands to go home empty. Papa helped them anyhow. That's the kind of fella Papa is -- good to the pit of his soul. It's a sorry shame that goodness doesn't protect a body from worries.

Time was when Papa didn't fret over a thing. A tornado could be tearing its way through town and he'd be lounging in the downstairs hallway reading a book. But in the early weeks of April, Papa walked out his worries in the late hours with only the cicadas to keep him company.

Half a lifetime of worrying and wishing taught me neither one made life return to its old ways. A change for the better meant stepping in and remolding things. I tried to talk with Papa, help him do just that, but he turned me away.

When I joined him in the hall one night, he stood by the window overlooking the street. The leaves on the trees out front cast a shadowy web over his face. Seeing me, he said, "It's like my mind's filled with swamp gas. I can't get a single thought to travel straight these days."

I nodded.

He laughed, the kind that sounded like it might turn to tears, then added, "A baby can just gobble up the day. Night's a good time to sort things out."

"What you thinking about, Papa?" I leaned into him, resting my head against his shoulder.

Taking my hand into his, he said, "I couldn't pin a thought down to share it."

"Sounds like you need a little thinking room, Papa."

"True enough."

Kissing him on the cheek, I turned to leave, but something held me there for a bit. I don't know if it was the distant look in his eyes or the way his shoulders bent forward like they carried a sack of grain each, but it had me shivering on the inside.

If a family had a cornerstone, then Papa was just that for the Bergens. He held us all up, keeping us safe and happy. I found myself wondering, What in God's good sense would I do if Papa fell? I meant that in a falling-into-yourself kind of way -- how a person becomes when the worries get so great, you can't even think of the world around you. Only your own thoughts exist. I got that way when my mama left.

Back in the spring of '33, she packed a suitcase and walked out the door without so much as a by your leave. I fell straight into myself and didn't come out for near to a year, worrying about whether I'd ever see my mama again, if she loved me, if our family would survive. And through all of it, Papa held me up.

When Mama calmed her roving heart and settled in Chicago, she whirled back into my life all "sorry"s and "see here"s, explaining how a body can't love another if they don't love themselves. Stepping out of my day-to-day life to spend some time with her up North, I acquired the strength to stand on my own -- even returned home to build a library fit for a divided town. Papa'd talked me through every decision, letting me lead the way.

As I walked back to my room that night, I wondered if I would have the strength to hold Papa up. The sheets felt cold as I slipped into bed. Closing my eyes tight, I prayed God would guide Papa to a sense of peace so I'd never have to find out just how strong I'd become.

Copyright © 2002 by A. LaFaye

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