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When We Were Saints

When We Were Saints

4.1 6
by Han Nolan

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Archibald Caswell could never please his domineering granddaddy Silas. Now with Granddaddy gone, Archie finds himself lost, confused, and wondering what Granddaddy could possibly have meant by his dying words: "Young man, you are a saint!"
Clare Simpson knows exactly what Silas meant. She convinces Archie to dedicate his life to God, give up his


Archibald Caswell could never please his domineering granddaddy Silas. Now with Granddaddy gone, Archie finds himself lost, confused, and wondering what Granddaddy could possibly have meant by his dying words: "Young man, you are a saint!"
Clare Simpson knows exactly what Silas meant. She convinces Archie to dedicate his life to God, give up his possessions, steal his granddaddy's truck, and head north to the Cloisters in New York, where she and Archie secretly live after museum hours. For Clare, the journey is a return to the only place where she has felt happy and loved. For Archie, the pilgrimage leads him to a closer relationship with God--and a burning desire for home.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nolan (Dancing on the Edge) poses thought-provoking questions about religious fervor, faith and reason in this mysterious tale of two lost teens. Archie Caswell, the 14-year-old orphaned narrator, is a lonely, confused adolescent shaken by some disturbing events in his small Southern town. First his best friend moves away, then his grandfather (and guardian) takes ill. On his deathbed, Archie's grandfather (known as a prophet) makes a proclamation, pointing at Archie and saying, "Young man, you are a saint!" Archie doesn't feel very godly, but he starts to put some stock in the prophecy when a newcomer, Clare Simpson, convinces him that they are both being called by God. Nolan delicately explores the gray area between dedication and fanaticism as readers, through Archie, become alternately mesmerized by Clare's goodness and deep spirituality, and puzzled by her actions. After Clare convinces Archie to join her on a pilgrimage to the Cloisters in New York City, the journey reveals deeper issues; he begins to wonder whether he and Clare are following the right path or chasing an illusion that could lead them to harm. This deeply philosophical and psychologically complex novel will hold readers rapt for the author's skillfully drawn characters and her exploration of the role of religion and faith in coming of age. While Archie is cast as a sympathetic hero struggling to find himself, the enigma of the more remote Clare is what keeps the pages turning; audience members are left to ponder whether she is truly a Christ figure or an emotionally disturbed teen bent on self-destruction. Ages 12-up. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
This stunning YA novel by National Book Award winner Han Nolan takes on the neglected topic of adolescent spirituality in an intense, probing story of a 14-year-old boy, Archie Caswell, who sets out to strive toward sainthood in the company of a complex, mysterious girl who considers herself to be the current incarnation of Saint Clare. Together, the two run away from their concerned families and close-knit Southern community on a pilgrimage in search of enlightenment at the Cloisters in New York City. They carry no worldly goods, trusting to the Lord (with considerable success) to provide for all their needs. Archie alternates between moments of rapturous ecstasy in communion with God, guilt over leaving his dying grandmother, love for Clare that has more physical yearning in it than he is willing to admit, and increasing anxiety over Clare's mounting fanaticism. At what point does mysticism cross over into mere insanity? What does Jesus really ask of those who commit themselves to follow Him? The novel offers no easy answers, but explores the quest of these two young aspiring saints in remarkable depth, mingling respect for even the most extreme expressions of religious devotion with skepticism regarding the ever-present potential for religious faith to result in self-deception. A brilliant, memorable book. 2003, Harcourt, Ages 12 up.
— Claudia Mills
To quote the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, September 2003: Those of you familiar with Nolan's work (Dancing on the Edge and Born Blue) know she doesn't shy away from difficult subjects such as troubled teenagers and religious themes. An excellent cover showing a hand with a bleeding wound of the stigmata is an introduction. Are people who see religious visions mentally ill? Through most of this story, we aren't sure. This is a lengthy (for a YA novel) story, with exquisitely developed characters in Archie and Clare. Clare calls Archie "Francis," and he discovers that her name is actually Doris, but she identifies so closely with Saint Clare, the friend of St. Francis of Assisi, that she thinks her name is Clare and Archie is actually Francis. She is beautiful, charismatic, loving. She sees Archie's desperation after his grandfather dies and his grandmother is ill in a hospital, and she suggests all sorts of meditations and religious rituals that distract him from his fear if nothing else. She persuades him to take the family truck and drive them (he is only 14) from the South where they live to Manhattan where they can visit the Cloisters. They have little money for food, which Clare isn't interested in anyway. When they are desperate, she manages to attract people who offer food and shelter. Han Nolan is so smart, she tells this story so that readers, like Archie, can see Clare as an amazing person, unusual, perhaps a saint. It is only later, as Clare becomes more and more emaciated, suffering the wounds of the stigmata, almost delirious, that Archie decides he must go against her wishes and seek the help of doctors. I am a great fan of Han Nolan's work, always, andyet I can understand that most of her novels, though critically acclaimed, will not have wide popular appeal among teenagers, mostly because they are filled with disturbed and disturbing characters. This story will perhaps need readers already fascinated by religion and by mental illness—otherwise they might just dismiss Archie and Clare as too strange for words. The road trip undertaken by these teenagers will be the most appealing part of the story, and perhaps that is the way to introduce the book to YAs. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Harcourt, 291p., Ages 12 to adult.
—Claire Rosser
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Archie, 14, is a thorn in his Bible-thumping grandfather's side until, on his deathbed, he pokes Archie and utters his final words, "Young man, you are a saint." The teen is swayed into believing this might be a prophetic blessing by the arrival of the beautiful and enigmatic Clare, who declares that they are soul mates, inheritors of the spirit of the original Saints Francis and Clare. Archie is besotted by a powerful mixture of innocent longing and religious fervor while guilt-ridden that he might have caused his grandfather's death. He grows increasingly confused by Clare. Is she merely a masterful manipulator or is she driven by a devotion to a monastic life of simplicity, love, and forgiveness? Is she divine or crazy? Archie's newfound piety causes him to ignore important earthly human relationships and he and Clare set off on a pilgrimage to her "home," the Cloisters museum in New York City, by stealing his grandfather's truck and driving illegally. Archie is a caring and likable protagonist, a budding artist whose vulnerabilities are legion. Both teens are portrayed as being sincere, if over the top, in their search for religious fulfillment. Clare is clearly troubled, and by the end of the novel, she is institutionalized. The conclusion suggests that, for better or worse, the ecstatic "saint" Clare may someday return. This powerfully written novel is outstanding in terms of the intensity of the experience described. It may seem overlong to some young people but those teens with an interest in matters of faith will find it credible, scary, gripping, and gratifying.-Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Young man, you are a saint!" are Archie's grandfather's dying words. They plunge the heretofore spiritually unquestioning 14-year-old into a morass of doubt. He sure doesn't think he's a saint, but when he meets the charismatic Clare, he begins to think that maybe he can become one. Under her tutelage, he renounces worldly things and spends hours upon hours in isolated prayer. Things come to a head when Clare convinces him to drive her to New York, where she intends to take up residence-with him-in the Cloisters, a move that causes Archie to see both his own faith and Clare's imbalance clearly. The notion of a 21st-century saint, as embodied by the religious ecstatic Clare, is a fascinating one, and it speaks powerfully to a teen's need for spiritual self-definition. But Archie's Hamlet-like back-and-forth about whether to follow Clare's program becomes tedious, and his own revelation at the Cloisters, while thematically apt, smacks not a little of deus ex machina. That certainly may be the point, but as a narrative strategy, it's more than a little frustrating. (Fiction. YA)
From the Publisher
"This deeply philosophical and psychologically complex novel will hold readers rapt."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Nolan demonstrates again that she is a masterful storyteller . . . Highly recommended."—VOYA (5Q—highest rating)

"This powerfully written novel is outstanding . . . scary, gripping, and gratifying."—School Library Journal

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)
800L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Archibald Lee Caswell had named the still he and his best friend, Armory Mitchell, had built in the basement of his grandparents' home The Last Hurrah, in honor of Armory, who was moving with his family to Washington, D.C. He couldn't believe that a still they had made with their own hands would really produce any alcohol. That's why he agreed to the scheme when Armory showed him the instructions for building it. How could a few copper pipes, some scrap metal, a hose, and Armory's Coleman stove produce real alcohol? So Archie went along with the plan, and for a week the two of them carried the bits and pieces they had found for the still past the living-room windows, where his grandparents could have looked out and seen them at any moment, to the bulkhead and down the steps to the basement. But there they stood, to Archie's great surprise, facing each other with their first mugfuls of the homemade brew in their hands.

They were an odd-looking twosome. Archie was tall for his fourteen years and lanky, but his freckled face and wide blue eyes still had the look of a little boy in them. Armory, also fourteen, was three inches shorter than his friend and built like a truck, with a voice that carried like a truck's horn. He had small dark eyes that glinted with mischief.

Armory held his mug out toward Archie's and said, "Here's to our friendship. Long may it sail. Hurrah!"

Archie clinked mugs with Armory and waited for his friend to take the first sip, but Armory said, "No, let's drink it together. Down the hatch in one big gulp."

Archie sniffed the brownish liquid in his mug. It smelled like a toilet. "Are you sure we didn't overheat this stuff? The instructions said to keep..."

"I know what the instructions 'said.' You were the one looking at the thermometer every five seconds. You tell me."

Archie sniffed again and shrugged. "I guess it's all right."

"You wouldn't chicken out on me now, would you, Cas? The last hurrah and all that?"

"Have I ever?" Archie asked.

Armory chuckled. "Well there was that cliff face you and your bike didn't seem to want to go down a while back."

"I went, didn't I? And I beat you down it, too."

"Yeah, on your face. What did you call that maneuver you did off the front end of your bike? The arc and splat?" Armory hooted and Archie shushed him. "My granddaddy will hear us."

"He's gotta know we're down here. He'd be more suspicious if we were quiet. So come on"-Armory lifted his mug-"to the last hurrah!"

Archie hesitated a second while the memory of the broken arm and ribs he had gotten from his ride down the cliff flashed through his mind. What's the worst that could happen this time? He lifted his mug and said, "To the last hurrah!" Then he and Armory drank the bitter liquid down, each in one long gulp. When they had finished, they looked at each other and laughed.

Archie said, "Shh, he'll hear us." Then he laughed again and added, "This stuff's terrible. It tastes like we scraped the mold off these basement walls." He looked at the musty walls of the old basement and felt a sudden gripping pain in his gut. He clutched his stomach, and then the pain was gone.

Armory turned back to the still. "Let's go one more round."

"Are you kidding?"

"Come on, Cas, it'll put hair on your chest."

"More like my tongue," Archie said, feeling another sharp pain in his stomach. "This stuff's not sitting too well."

"Of course not. You never drank before. You're inexperienced, that's all." Armory held out his hand. "Give me your mug, Cas, come on."

Archie handed it over and wondered how he could get out of drinking another mugful. He didn't want to wimp out on his best friend on their last day together, but he didn't think he could keep another round down.

Armory handed him back his mug, and Archie took it without looking into the cup or sniffing the brew this time. Again Armory held up his mug and said, "To the last hurrah!"

"To the last hurrah," Archie said without enthusiasm. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and swallowed a big gulp. He heard his friend laughing, and he opened his eyes.

"Caswell, I can't believe you drank that. This isn't brew, it's hair tonic." Armory shot forward and dumped his drink on Archie's head. Archie howled and emptied the rest of his brew onto Armory. "You lunatic!" he shouted.

"What y'all doing down there? Archibald?"

Archie heard the cellar door open and he froze. "Nothing, Granddaddy, we'll be quieter." He heard his grandfather coming down the steps and felt both panic and alcohol rising inside himself. He turned and looked wide-eyed at Armory, who wore an expression of surprised delight. Archie turned back in the direction of the stairs and saw his grandfather appear in front of him.

It took the old man no time to figure out what they had been up to, and Archie saw his face turn purple with rage. "What?" his grandfather shouted, grabbing the front of Archie's shirt.

"Granddaddy, it-it's not what you think. It's..." Archie couldn't speak. He could feel the alcohol rising and rising. He tried to swallow it back down.

His grandfather shook him and shouted, "This here is the last straw! You are in the clutches of the very devil himself! I'm gonna tan your hide, boy. Makin' a still in my own home. Drinkin'!" He shook Archie again, and Archie couldn't hold back any longer. He vomited all over the front of his grandfather's shirt and pants.

Armory laughed and shouted out, "The last hurrah! Caswell, you did it!" As though Archie had vomited on purpose.

Archie was stunned. He looked at his grandfather, whose body shook with rage. The old man clenched his jaws and bared his teeth as though he wanted to rip into Archie and shred him to pieces. Archie tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come out. Then his grandfather's expression changed. In an instant it went from rage to alarm. Archie watched him wide-eyed as he fell forward onto his knees and then down to the floor, where he curled up into a tight ball.

Armory stopped laughing.

Archie dropped down beside his grandfather and touched his shoulder. "Granddaddy, are you all right? What should I do?"

"Get your grandmama, boy," he whispered. "Get your grandmama. I'm dying."

Copyright © 2003 by Han Nolan

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

HAN NOLAN is the author of five critically acclaimed novels, including the National Book Award winner Dancing on the Edge. She lives in New England.

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When We Were Saints 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't even believe in God or really agree with any religion, but this book captured my heart. I strongly recommend to anyone. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nikkayme More than 1 year ago
When We Were Saints is the story of Archibald Lee Caswell, your everyday, average 14 year old boy, who goes on a pilgrimage to become a saint. Archie's life drastically changes the day his grandfather Silas, an old prophet, dies and tells Archie he is a saint. The day of the funeral, a young girl comes up to Archie and hands him a card that basically says the same thing. Clare Simpson, the girl from the funeral is a very religious 15 year old who convinces Archie that he truly is saintly and that the two of them are soul mates. From there, Archie goes on a journey to find God and become the saint he believes he is destined to be. This book was a rollercoaster of a ride for me. There isn't a lot of action or crazy things happening, but it truly made me think. Archie's journey to sainthood is moving and made me think about religion in an entirely different way. That being said, this book is filled with the Catholic religion. I think that alone may make a lot of readers pass on this. I'm not particularly religious, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Nolan has created an unforgettable character in Archie. He is your average boy, but unique in the so many ways. His devotion to Clare is startling at times, but almost understandable. Clare herself is a startling character. Her complete, unwavering devotion to God is incredible and terrifying. Archie wants what she has and almost loses himself to find it. Their pilgrimage moved me to tears. I couldn't even put the book down towards the end because I was so connected to Archie and I needed to know what was going to happen to him. It's impossible not to care for him. Archie is so young and naïve and he has so much love pouring out of him that I instantly felt connected with him. I never really felt that way with Clare, but I don't think the reader is supposed to. Clare is the catalyst for the pilgrimage and Archie's reason for wanting to be closer to God, but she does so much more than that for him. Their journey isn't just about finding God, it is about finding the goodness in humankind and becoming saintly in ways that aren't even related to religion. When We Were Saints isn't a love story and it isn't necessarily a story about finding God either. It is a story about a boy finding himself. Archie goes on a pilgrimage to be closer to God, but he actually discovers the person he is and the person he wants to be. It is a moving, emotional journey that will stay with me for a long time. Opening line: Archibald Lee Caswell had named the still he and his best friend, Armory Mitchell, had built in the basement of his grandparents' home The Last Hurrah, in honor of Armory, who was moving with his family to Washington, D.C. Favorite line: Maybe that's all it really takes to be a saint - those simple acts of kindness.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When we Were Saints was fantastic! This book was incredible. If you think you don't want to read it because it is religious- think again! It really isn't about the religion- although it does bring out great principles- it is more about coming into yourself and the steps it took Archie to get there. Mrs. Nolan did a very good job in telling the story and at the very end, I truly liked that she didn't answer all the readers questions and kept you guessing. Some people don't like that type of a book but really, the happy and sad, touching, makes you REALLY think books are my favorite. I think if every little detail had been explained word for word and some things not just been insinuated, it would have changed my whole perspective on the book. Again, I commend Mrs. Nolan on her masterpiece. I had fun reading this book and I couldn't put it down. I recommend this book to nearly everyone, despite what your beiefs are, for if you don't read it for the religious aspect, I believe you still get about 80% out of the book. Read it, read it, read it! This book has definatly earned a place on my bookshelf!
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Young man you are a saint!!¿ those are the last dying words spoken by Archie¿s Grandfather. What could being a saint have to do with anything? Days after Archie¿s Grandfather said his words to Archie. . . he leaves with his Grandmother to go the funeral with guilt and the sound of his Grandfathers words ringing over and over in his head. At the funeral it not only pours down rain but Archie is giving a card by a mysterious girl in black. The card reads similar words to what his Grandfather says to him. Archie later finds out this girl he met is named Clare, and she wants to meet up with him again .. Clare tells Archie how to be a faithful Christian and what his Grandfather meant when he said ¿You¿re a saint¿. Clare later comes up with the idea of excluding things out of life that we sometimes take for granted because they block people from God. They set out for a pilgramige in a religious museum in New York. Archie later starts to question Clare¿s gifts that were suposivly given to by her God. Why dose Clare seem to make things look almost as if they were planed out? Is she being to obsessive with this whole thing? Archie learns more about God, how to love God, and most of all¿what in being a faithful Christian really matters. This book takes awhile to get into and will probley loose alot of readers because of that. Me being a big Han Nolan fan is probley the only reason I continued reading this book. If you were asked to read this with free choice you might hesitate about it.