“There is no telling why some stories slip into the crevices of your bones,” Elizabeth Engelman writes in her novel The Way of the Saints, “and fuse like grafted stems into your own story.” While the piece itself may not graft into your bones, it will certainly be one to stick with you. The Way of the Saints not only paints a vivid picture of Santeria and its many iterations, but presents it as a vehicle for change, personal growth, and a struggle for freedom.
With 26 characters, stretching between three countries in a sixty-six year span, Engelman squeezes a lot of story into 204 pages. The Way of the Saints is molded into four unique timelines that converge into three, mostly following the same characters at different points in their lives.
The piece opens on a young man, Rosendo, in 1923, Puerto Rico. Rosendo is a child sold as a slave, serving doña Elba, a santera (priestess), as a vessel. It’s all she wants and needs him for. Rosendo, however, doesn’t know this. One night, feigning sickness, he watches in horror as doña Elba uses a young boy, younger than him, to cure a field hand’s foot injury, trading life for life. “Elba swapped in flash and energy. She was a slave trader with the dead.” Terrified, Rosendo runs away, deep into the swamps of Fajardo to either die a free child, or start another life at the next village. “Elba said three was the number of destiny. Rosendo swam deeper, too terrified to look back.”
This slips into the point of view of another person, Isabel Cruz, many years later, and in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The reader doesn’t know it yet, but Isabel is Rosendo’s daughter. She’s there to meet a man she knew from her previous apartment as a child, a babalawo (high priest), named Ernesto. Isabel is pregnant, and after losing her first three children in miscarriages, doesn’t want to leave this one up to chance. They perform a small ritual where, “the lines of Ernesto’s face slipped in and out of focus, until he no longer looked like a man, but more like an empty-eyed skull. Smoke filled her lungs, burned her throat. Her body weakened. The room spun. There was the sensation of falling. Hitting the ground. Slapping tile before slipping right through the floor. Sinking without end.”
The point of view again switches, to a woman named Paula, in mid-1930s Puerto Rico. She meets an adolescent Rosendo, but loves his half-brother, Alberto – a man heavily entrenched in the Nationalist movement in Fajardo – a cadet in the Nationalist army, he’s participating in a parade that would later turn into a massacre.
Again, the point of view switches, this time to a child named Esther – Isabel’s child. A child she, Ernesto, and her madrina (godmother) Lourdes saved through prayer, sacrifice, and practice of Santeria.
Boiled down, The Way of the Saints is a story of three generations of women finding themselves through the wreckage of their lives and fighting for their families. It would’ve been a truly inspirational tale of breaking through fear, confusion, loss, and grief and immigrating to new countries and fighting for independence – had it not been for the essay-like tone and threads of plot lost in the sheer amount of story the piece contains.
The Way of the Saints is not an easy read. It’s a book to be taken slowly, dissolved on the tip of the tongue in bite-sized pieces, and even then, time must be taken to process the volume of information that’s packed into each page. It’s more information per capita than story – an educational, historical fiction with a dash of the supernatural in the form of spirits to be appeased and the orishas (the Saints).
The piece tends to throw the reader headfirst into plot and explain itself through hints later. This, while jarring at first, does pay off when you start to connect the dots, but sometimes the piece tries to out-maneuver both itself and the reader, to the detriment of its own characters. The sharp dips and curves into intrigue will lead to some head scratching.
However, through the throng of supporting characters and non-linear time jumps, you can really get to know the main characters. The reader gets to see them at almost every stage of their lives, and through this, a sense of knowing and empathy is easily adopted, as well as through the third-person narration that focuses on feelings and depth of the character’s thoughts, which puts their vulnerability on show. For instance, Isabel is often an open book: “Isabel kept her eyes shut, not wanting to see her own nakedness or the woman’s hands on her bare skin. She tried to focus on the words in the air between them like a blinding cloud, numbing the shame and the strange feeling of loss.”
No book happens in a vacuum, and Engelman makes sure of that. She portrays history objectively – the comparison between the Nationalists fighting for a free Puerto Rico and the issues within the United States now is easy to see. The piece states without making a statement; it simply lays out the facts for an audience – that history repeats itself until someone listens.
The Way of the Saints is a story that, when reading, needs to be given its own time and space. Its value lies in the empowerment of three women of color – Isabel, Paula, and Esther – finding who they are and doing it on purpose. This, along with the weighty educational and comparative value that brings to light Puerto Rico’s early independence movement, immigrant populations, and the negative impact the United States had on both, makes for an enlightening piece that’s not without its faults, but is worth the time and effort to read.
The Way of the Saints
Southeast Missouri State University Press
Published September 1, 2021