REVIEW: The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars, Genre: Fiction/ Christian Fiction/ Historical Fiction, Pages: 579, Level: Intermediate

Book Description from Barnes & Noble:

This is the classic work that tells the true story surrounding the miraculous visions of St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, France in 1858. Werfel, a highly respected anti-Nazi writer from Vienna, became a Jewish refugee who barely escaped death in 1940, and wrote this moving story to fulfill a promise he made to God. While hiding in the little village of Lourdes, Werfel felt the Nazi noose tightening, and realizing that he and his wife might well be caught and executed, he made a promise to God to write about the “song of Bernadette” that he had been inspired by during his clandestine stay in Lourdes. Though Werfel was Jewish, he was so deeply impressed by both Bernadette and the happenings at Lourdes, that his writing has a profound sense of Catholic understanding.

The Song of Bernadette tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous who claimed to have visions of Mary, the mother of God in Lourdes, France in 1858.

Bernadette is portrayed as a naive child, prone to physical weakness and asthma, and not very intelligent. While she, her sister and a classmate are out, Bernadette sees a beautiful lady although the other girls do not. Word eventually gets out and the community reacts in different ways. At first many are skeptic, but when a prominent woman in the community believes Bernadette, others soon follow, which gets the attention of the government and Church. One day, the vision instructs Bernadette to dig in the earth and a spring emerges. A dying infant is placed in the water and miraculously recovers, which sparks the pilgrimages of thousands. Due to her fragile nature and health, Bernadette’s is sent away to a convent where she will spend the rest of her years. Subsequently, after initially reacting with skepticism and attempting to restrict access to the spring, the governmental and religious leaders decide to take over management of the spring and capitalize on it by selling all sorts of memorabilia of Bernadette and the lady who ultimately identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, or Mary, the mother of God.

This story is long and slow. I decided to listen to the audiobook while walking in the mornings and it turned out to be a really good decision. If I had read the book, I would only have been able to read a few pages at a time.

The author was hiding out from the Nazis in Lourdes and states that he made a promise to God to tell the story of Bernadette. While this may sound as if the book will be complete indoctrination, it is not. Werfel clearly is sympathetic and partial to Bernadette, as the inhabitants of Lourdes likely were when telling the story, but the skepticism of and inquiries into the visions are also retold. For those who are religious or love to read about the lives of saints, I believe you will find this story to be inspiring. If you do not, this book is not for you.

Werfel does a good job of portraying Bernadette’s experiences and his characters are well developed. It was an interesting story but there is not a whole lot of action in it. However, Werfel does portray the consequences of Bernadette’s claims in all arenas- family, community, political and religious. The depiction of those aspects, while slow-paced, is also noteworthy because the narrative is more comprehensive.

I listened to the version of The Song of Bernadette which is read by Johanna Ward. Ward does an excellent job; the recording is clear and lively.

Reviewed by Christina

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