What exactly made this the best-selling book of 1942 in the United States? This is the second of three religious fiction best-sellers in three years during the early 1940s, so religion was on people's minds. It was also the first full-fledged year of war for Americans. And this book did have some ties into the war at hand.
There's the story of the author himself. He was Jewish, and he snuck out of Nazi-occupied territory to save himself. Hence, a certain amount of sympathy likely went out to him, just as it went out to Salman Rushdie when his life was threatened. The author had previous had a successful novel in the 1910s, so he was a known quantity. The author is not shy about tying in his own life and the story he tells to the current events in the world in his preface. What's more, at the end of the novel, he makes this claim about the subject of this story: "a considerable portion of mankind was under the demonic sway. The fever of maniacal false doctrines was threatening to plunge the human spirit into bloody madness. In the battle against this, which man must win, not only did Lourdes stand like a very rock, but the life of Bernadette Soubirous retained its prophetic activity within time." I tend to think that the author was contemplating the world around him as Europe was in the grip of war.
As for Bernadette's story, it is a Catholic one and seems a strange story for a non-Catholic to tell. It is a tale about a saint and how she becomes one. The tale takes place in the mid-1800s. Bernadette is from a poor family. She herself is not exactly the brightest teenager. But one day, while she and some friends are walking around and her friends take off ahead, Bernadette receives a vision of a woman. The woman tells Bernadette to come back for fifteen days. So beautiful is she that Bernadette agrees to.
For some reason, others find Bernadette's story intriguing enough that they decide to accompany her. Others find it suspicious; after all, only she can see the woman. She is put through various trials as people try to show up the fact that she is a liar or prevent her or others from returning to see the lady. But all such attempts are thwarted, as miracle after miracle allows Bernadette to return to see the vision and to create a procession for the lady and to build a chapel. Most notable among them: a creek spurts out from the soil where there was none before, and when people bathe in or drink of it, they are often cured of various ailments.
Of course, it is the woman who performs this miracle, not Bernadette, but for whatever reason, people end up sainting the latter, who maintains her child-like innocence throughout, wanting nothing for herself other than to see the lady.
What rather surprises me about the book's popularity is that to me this seems merely like an extended account of the saint's life. There aren't really any surprises here (when Bernadette is threatened, she notes that she must do as the lady says and then does it; when people suspect the lady is the Virgin Mary, she turns out to be the Virgin Mary; when authorities block people from the spring, people come anyway and thwart the authorities; and on and on), and the characters aren't all that deeply drawn. I really didn't get a feel for anyone other than Bernadette, and she was a rather Jesus-like figure who could do little wrong other than be a bit dim-witted at times toward the beginning. Other characters were merely tools to show up Bernadette's righteousness, people whose doubts by the end of the book are shown to be so wrong that they feel guilty and repent for ever doubting a vision only the one girl could see. Compelling reading six decades later it was not.