A review of The Way of the Saints by Elizabeth Engelman

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

The Way of the Saints
by Elizabeth Engelman
Southeast Missouri State Univ Press
September 1, 2021, Paperback, 212 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1733015332

The Way of the Saints by Elizabeth Engelman is a stunning and lush debut about an extended Puerto Rican family struggling to survive its own heritage. The diverse stories, varied settings, and multiple characters all have their riveting moments, but one of the stand-out qualities about The Way of the Saints is the sheer richness and beauty of its language. Engelman, a poet, has such stirring and evocative sentences as: “Still, he felt the click of wings and tongues permeating his ears when he slept.” Or this one, which wraps the novel’s prevalent mysticism with simple, yet powerful, language: “She was a slave trader with the dead.”

Written as inter-related stories that can be read as a multi-generational novel or a collection of short stories, the book reflects the author’s own life and that of her family. Her webpage indicates that Engelman, who now lives in Florida, is the daughter of a Santeria priestess, as is one of her main characters. As such, readers should expect—and will not be disappointed—to find a good deal of Santeria involved in the plot lines and descriptions. 

The book opens in Puerto Rico, in 1923, when Rosendo, a young boy, is sold to an “espiritismo” who “would have paid more if not for the bruises and burn marks on Rosendo’s skin.” From that powerful and rather brutal introduction, the book hops to Lower East Side Manhattan in 1974 when a young pregnant woman, Isabel, visits a Santeria priest known as a “babalawo” and “a father of secrets.” Isabel has suffered three miscarriages and is desperate to save the child she now carries—desperate enough to forsake her mother’s condemnation of the babalawo. However, he soon tells her “You’re in danger,…you’re cursed.” 

Isabel, readers soon learn, is Rosendo’s daughter. In the company of the babalawo, she recalls “the explosive snap of her father’s belt,” and that he was a Pentecostal preacher. Such contrasts form a central pattern in the book as the old ways and the new challenge each other, with chapters set in Puerto Rico in the twenties and thirties, and chapters set in New York in more current times. As such the book is a study in contrasts—and conflicts. The weaving back forth in time and location creates a wonderful tapestry of characters and plot, though it does require readers to pay close attention. But the complexity of the book is part of it power, and the characters emerge well developed over the course of the book.

Santeria rituals and beliefs are often juxtaposed with Christianity, in keeping with the book’s habit of offering contrasts and conflicts. For example:

To cover all of her bases, as instructed by Grandma Paula, [Isabel] rebuked the Egun and each of the orishas in the name of Jesus.

Esther shrugged. “That’s it?” She had anticipated an Exorcist moment, a lightning strike that never came. There was only the sound of running water.

Though the stories start with young Rosendo, the dominant characters are three generations of Puerto Rican women, Paula, Isabel, and Esther. Through these three, the author carries readers through Puerto Rico’s Independence movement, the harsh poverty of life in New York tenements, a trip to Cuba, and ultimately hard-won prosperity. Through it all, the family struggles with dysfunction, rape, abuses, and Isabel’s involvement with Santeria. This struggle is vividly depicted in one precise sentence: “[Isabel] slept with headphones on, listening to a continuous loop of Southern gospel preaching to keep out the rum-thickened voices of her ancestors.”

Well-versed in both the Puerto Rican culture and history—and in the Santeria rituals—The Way of Saints should capture any readers’ attention and hold it to the last, beautiful word. This is a stunning book, even if sometimes bleak, about a family struggling to transcend its own sometimes cryptic and often brutal history, as well as the history of their natural land. This is not a light and fluffy book, but its harshness and intensity are part of what makes it such a great read. And, as mentioned before, the writing itself is eloquent and gorgeous. The lyrical, precise prose in The Way of the Saints transforms the story into literature. 

While this is a debut novel, the author, Elizbeth Engelman, is no stranger to the literary world. She is a recipient of the Marianne Russo Award and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar Grant to Ireland, a 2019 top-ten finalist for the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, and the New York Times and Endeavor Magazine have published her essays. Yale’s literary and art journal, LETTERS, has published her poetry. Engelman earned an MFA from the University of Tampa, an M.A. in Poetry from Lancaster University, and a B.A. from Carson-Newman University. The Way of the Saints also won the Nilson Prize for a First Novel. 

About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro has been a newspaper reporter in Alabama, a lawyer in Florida, and has taught at Florida State University College of Law and University of Oregon School of Law. An author of seven prior mysteries and legal thrillers, she and her husband live on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Her newest book, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing Aug. 2021), is with co-author Penny Koepsel. Claire remains active in writers’ and environmental groups and is an associate editor at Southern Literary Review. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com