Hannah Green is probably best known for her first book, The Dead of the House (1973), a largely historical account of her family’s early history. She studied fiction at Wellesley College under Vladimir Nabokov before moving to Stanford University in 1956 where she began working with Wallace Stegner. In the early 1960’s, Green received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and, in 1971, married John “Jack” Wesley, an artist who figures prominently in Little Saint. From 1975 on, Green and Wesley began spending their summers in France, where the couple’s experiences inspired several of Green’s later works, including In the City of Paris (1985), a book for children, and Little Saint, Green’s slightly fictionalized account of their adventures in Conques, a small village in south central France.
Little Saint is a difficult book to classify. As a reflection on the challenges and pleasures of life in a foreign culture, it is reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s lighthearted A Year in Provence (1989) and Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun (1996). As in those earlier works, much of the atmosphere created by Little Saint derives from the memorable characters encountered by the author during her stays in a small community. In Green’s book, however, the author experiences few of the obstacles facing an outsider who tries to enter a closed community. Within a very short time, the local citizens accept Green as one of their own. They tell her stories of their lives and introduce her to sites in the town that no tourist would dream of asking about. During moments such as these, Little Saint is a warm and humane book, a celebration of diversity in regional culture that reminds one how, in the most fundamental ways, all people are really alike.
Nevertheless, Little Saint also operates at times on a more profound and reflective level. When it is not being a mere travelogue, Green’s book becomes an account of the author’s spiritual journey, an exploration of what it is that repeatedly draws her to Conques and the treasury of its patron saint.
I could feel the stirrings of that long procession of human beings who had come here down through time to fall on their knees and pray for her help, again and again in their devotion renewing her life—this eternal girl-child, daughter becoming woman, who held within herself the promise of all that is good and beautiful and healing, and all that is bountiful.
In such passages, Little Saint transcends the life of Saint Foy and becomes an insight into Green’s attitudes about her own life and identity. At these times, the book is reminiscent of the works of Bettina Selby, whose Pilgrim’s Road (1994) and Riding to Jerusalem (1985) succeed simultaneously as essays about actual journeys and as introspective accounts of the author’s self-discovery. Green has deftly combined study of Conques with her own story. It is not an accident, after all, that this small French village on one of the major pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages (leading from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela in Spain) strikes such a chord in the author’s longings. Green arrived there at the beginning of her own “middle age,” and the site where that awareness occurred became the starting point for her own intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage.
Green died before Little Saint was completed. She had intended to add a short additional section before the book’s ending and to transfer some detailed scholarly information from the text itself to an appendix. After Green’s death, her husband, who had accompanied her on her travels to Conques, and Sarah Glasscock, her colleague who had helped her prepare the notes for Little Saint, assisted Sam Vaughn of Random House in preparing the book for publication. Working together, the three coeditors discovered that little in Green’s original manuscript needed to be altered. A few repetitious passages were excised and several long descriptions were condensed. In all major ways, however, Little Saint is the book that Green left behind at her death. A number of comments scattered throughout the book are especially poignant since the reader is aware that the author did not live to see its publication. Green speaks of working on a cookbook after completing Little Saint that would contain recipes she loved in Conques. Still later she plans to write at least one additional volume about the...
(The entire section is 1841 words.)