Review by Terry Glavin, The Georgia Straight, June 27, 2002
Part travelogue and part anthropological study, Virgin Trails is an account of Ward’s visits to several sites of Marian devotion in Europe. The result is hilarious, moving, thoughtful and delightfully written…
As for the Virgin Mary and her alleged miracles, Ward refuses to sneer. Instead, he makes the case that what it’s really all about is a persistent, subversive faith in the idea of mercy and the very real and ancient human need to believe in the possibility that there is a greater kindness out there somewhere.
Ward gets it.
Review by Duncan Mc Monagle, Winnipeg Free Press, July 14, 2002
As he walks, sometimes with other pilgrims, sometimes alone, Ward ponders the stories that he is learning. This book is a celebration of the power of those stories.
Review by Laszlo Buhasz, The Globe and Mail, August 3, 2002
Beginning with Notre-Dame-de-Paris, Ward – a self-professed atheist who sometimes strays into agnosticism – begins a fascinating “secular” journey to find the truth behind the legends and revelations of Mary in the hundreds of places in the Latin nations of Europe where she is venerated…
Ward’s examination of the Marian phenomenon and its connection to the nature of spirituality, belief and the essence of pilgrimage is open-minded, thought-provoking and, best of all, highly entertaining. This is a notable debut from a writer we’ll hear from again.
Review by Doug Norris, The United Church Observer, July/August 2002
The delightful result of Ward’s journey is a moving classroom with a witty teacher...
Ward is careful with the fantastic, and treats the veneration of the Virgin Mary with respect… Since (he) is an able communicator of the political, religious and human histories of the places through which he walks on the pilgrim’s way, this will be an entertainment as well as an education. There is good company here, an amiable and erudite host, and another world to explore.
Review by Alide Kohlhaas, Lancetteer, Summer 2002
Not only is the book well-written, with fluid sentences and fine descriptions, but Ward never lets his own disbelief cloud his observations with cynicism. He never smirks at those who have the need to believe… the book is worth reading, regardless of one’s own religious views. Importantly, it is entertaining as well as informative. No one who reads it can be left indifferent, and most will feel enriched by it in a very unusual way.
Review by Julie Davis, Spero News (Catholic webnews), October 2005
An avowed atheist, Ward indulged his long held desire to walk on pilgrimage in going to various Marian shrines throughout Europe. In doing so he presents one of the clearest and most even-handed views of pilgrimage and these shrines that I have ever read… Ward has an excellent understanding of the Catholic Church’s teachings and is more open minded in many cases than some Catholics I know.
Throughout the book the reader hopes that Ward will be moved by one sign or another to find some of the answers that he is looking for. His personal search is not transparent, but make no mistake about it, Ward’s journey is a quest. At the very least Virgin Trails is a wonderful description of the history and modern presence of many Marian shrines. At its best, this book may well raise the same questions for the reader as for Robert Ward when the contrast between the ancient and modern, pilgrim and tourist, and holy and secular are explored and revealed.
Review by Adem Tepedelen, Amazon.ca
Ward’s strength as a writer is his religious knowledge, and some of the book’s most enthralling sections are the historical contexts and backgrounds he provides for the various places he observes the pilgrims – from Paris, France, to Fatima, Portugal. He examines faith and belief with both respect and wide-eyed curiosity, yet never without his own brand of levity. Virgin Trails is an absorbing, well-researched travelogue that takes a modern look at a very old and complex subject.
From In Between Naps (blog), Amy Welborn, 2003
Robert Ward, while an admittedly agnostic seeker, treats what he sees – in Paris, Lourdes, Spain and Rome – with the deepest respect and a completely open mind. Best of all, he avoids the common modern pitfall of constantly and oppressively inserting himself into the narrative. Oh, he’s there all right, on every page, but his personal quest isn’t the center of the story – we sort of get why he’s doing this, but sort of not, and that’s not because he’s being coy, but rather because he chooses to put what he observes, not himself, on center stage. Take it from one who’s read almost every seeker-encountering-Catholic-stuff tale that’s come down the pike in the past five years – such reticence is refreshing.
There has been a great deal of lovely stuff – as well as dreck – written about Lourdes, but what Ward does with it ranks with the best. He weaves history in with his observations of his stay, which included a stint working as a volunteer with the malades, and produces some fine writing…