Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on August 7, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult
Length: 329 pages Source: Gift from Family
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Michael is an atheist. So as he walks through the doors at St. Clare’s—a strict Catholic school—sporting a plaid tie, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow nonbeliever at that. Only this girl, Lucy, is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.
But Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism. After an incident in theology class, Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies. When Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom, or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.
I think Heretics Anonymous is a really important book to have out there, and I think that a lot of people will be offended by it.
Please take this all with a grain salt, because with anything controversial, personal experiences tends to shade the review. I am going to try really hard not to discuss too much theology here, because I feel like that will lead to arguments, and this is a book review blog. That said, I think a little background on my own experience is required to give a fair frame for this review. I’ll keep it as brief as possible.
I received my copy of Heretics Anonymous from my little brother for my birthday. It’s a book I’ve been bouncing back and forth about, intrigued but a little worried. Throughout our childhood, our father pushed us into churches. From his perspective, filled with strong beliefs, he was doing what any loving parents would do in his own belief structure and trying to save our souls. From a third-person perspective, I try to respect that, because his spirituality demanded his behavior and therefore he would see it as just. If my father was a little more like Lucy, I wouldn’t be so bitter about it. But he was firm and unrelenting, so my perspective of of Western Christianity is tainted.
That’s what makes this review so difficult for me to write. I’m bitter against Christianity. Iim bitter because I was shipped off to a Wesleyan college where I had theology class and mandatory chapel thrice weekly. Because when it was determined I could get a much better financial package closer to home, I took classes in Taoism and Buddhism and Islam and learned that there is SO MUCH MORE out there. I studied the Crusades. If you want your bright and fluffy perspective of history smattered to bits, take a class at a secular school on the Crusades. They’ll make you sick. And these are just my academics records; I have a sordid history between my family members and my (lack of “acceptable”) religion.
This is not intended to be a lecture about my personal spiritual beliefs and non-beliefs. I want to give you a bit of a background about my experience with religion, since Heretics Anonymous takes place within a Catholic school and both challenges and discusses Catholicism. A lot of the western tradition requires that the faithful paint their Saints and savior as infallible, the Holy texts as literal and enduring. Lucy struggles with this in Heretics Anonymous, because she wants to be a priest.
Note: women cannot be priests according to traditional Catholic beliefs. In the last few decades, Christian churches of various doctrines have begun to allow female preachers, but in 2018, the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize them. Not dissing the Catholic Church here – there are many things the current Pope has done to earn my personal respect. It’s just a fact and we’re not going to argue about it. But it’s perceived inconsistencies with modernity like these that push Lucy into joining with out outcasts and creating the support group “Heretics Anonymous”.
I think that as a whole, Katie Henry has done a very good and very careful job balancing criticism of the way this school is run with encouragement for her main character, Michael, to find his own faith. I honestly believe she’s given Lucy a good voice to outline her faith and inspire people. I also think it’s wonderful that she’s given Eden, a Celtic Reconstructionist, her own voice. Avi and Max have their voices as well, but less pronounced (honestly Eden’s is minor too, but I really appreciated it).
The one I have issues with is Michael.
Michael is, to put it bluntly, an asshole.
It’s difficult to respect his stance as a proclaimed atheist when he swoops in and causes so much chaos. He’s rash and angry and while I can understand his perspective and I get we can’t always like the main character… I hated Michael. He was such an insufferable character to make this journey with. If you relate to his plight of feeling angry and abandoned and needing to lash out at everything and everyone without consequence… he’ll work for you as a character. For me, he made me want to throw the book. He is so mean to his parents (Dad’s not a great character either, but I feel for Mom), and selfish towards his friends. He doesn’t make much of an argument to be likable.
So all that said, which as much as I hated Max, I hated the ending. Really, I want the other characters to be happy. But the way things tied up nicely in a bow just for Michael infuriated me. It was too easy, and he got it all because he got some flowers and made up with his dad after a fight. Everyone altered their lives to give him this ending and just… GAH.
But the book is important because it talks about things we’re taught not to discuss in polite society. There aren’t many books (actually I can’t think of any) that discuss the difficulties of finding your own religion or finding strength when your own spiritual beliefs are challenged. It’s something we talk about so little, and if you’re part of a marginalized group, you feel alone out there. I think we need to grant greater understanding of world religions and teach them more widely, because they make up so much of human culture. That may be the historian in me speaking, but that’s how I feel. So in giving those people a voice, Heretics Anonymous is amazing.
It also should be mentioned that this book can be really funny. I appreciate that Katie Henry balanced these serious topics with so much humor and found myself laughing out load more than once. Loved it.
I think that anyone considering this book needs to be prepared to go in with an open mind. It’s witty and clever and interesting and thoughtful, but for those who hold tightly to their religion and find themselves becoming defensive if discussion arises around their beliefs may be better to avoid it. I know so many people who would call this book blasphemous, and I fully expect this to be promptly on banned books lists.
So I hope you can read it, and I hope you can enjoy it, and I hope we can have sensible, calm conversations in the comments.
Heretics Anonymous stays on my shelf!
Well, for one, I think it would hurt my brother’s feelings if I got rid of the book he just got me for my birthday this month.
Second, it’s this lovely light seafoam color that photographs marvelously! (I jest – this is a true fact, but not a factor of me keeping it.)
Third, it’s a very interesting book? And I want to read it again someday, perhaps when I know what I’m getting into, and hopefully I will be less driven to make snarky comments about things while I’m reading the book. Example? On page 10, Max asks a peer how to perform a satanic ritual (kiddingly…ish) and I immediately texted my brother that our father would have a heartache to see us reading this book. So I guess it brought me dark pleasure and rebellion as well? Not like I’m 29 and married and living away from home and don’t need to rebel anymore or anything….