Sainthood and Real Life: Review of A Psalm for Lost Girls

Callie and Tess da Silva—sisters living with their single mother—were always close. Tess was the sweet, sensitive one while Callie was the smart one destined to escape their dead-end town of Portuguese, Italian, and Puerto Rican migrants to coastal Massachusetts. Then Tess, the oldest by two years, saw a vision and in the middle of the night dragged Callie to the docks to warn a ship’s captain of a storm no weather channel had predicted. It was a miracle, the townspeople said, and they brought their problems to the teenager, begging her for more. Then six-year-old Ana Langone disappeared, and people began to question Tess’s powers.

Now Tess is dead from an undiagnosed congenital heart condition, and a grieving Callie resents her mother’s efforts to make her beloved older sister a saint, efforts that gain new energy when Ana reappears, traumatized but alive. Callie teams up with Tess’s boyfriend, Danny, to find out the truth about Ana’s disappearance but more than that, to keep Tess’s memory alive as she really was—a sister, a daughter, and a girlfriend. Callie is willing to sacrifice her relationships, her safety, and her future to preserve the Tess she knew and loved.

In her debut novel, Katie Bayerl explores complex characters and their relationships with sensitivity and skill. She immerses readers in the ethnic working-class community where faith offers solace and hope to people who have little of each. She doesn’t shy away from presenting the dark side though—the Church establishment’s attempt to intimidate Tess because they could not control her (much like the Church’s attitude toward the teenage Joan of Arc) and the way that the faithful used and tormented Tess, which may have hastened her death. Bayerl narrates the novel in three voices—Callie’s first person narrative, Tess’s diary, and Ana’s unspoken thoughts; each voice is unique and essential. The relationship between Callie and Danny recalls the taboo romance between the grieving boyfriend and younger sister in Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere, but here there’s less romance and more a study of friendship between two people who had a different (and secret to the other) relationship with Tess and handle their grief in their own, often conflicting ways. Bayerl’s portrayal of the extended Portuguese family and the many other secrets the members hide from each other and the wider community is a fascinating and well-informed window on this small, close-knit immigrant group.

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