Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pope Joan by Donna W. Cross

Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher, Year: Ballantine Books, 1997
Flags: Adult themes, Tenuous references
Rating: A or Great Read
Premise: A woman, incognito, ascends to the highest office in Christendom.

I picked up this book when my husband and I wanted to some of quality time with the bookstore. It was on the bestseller’s rack, so I gave it a shot. After the first chapter, I was hooked and had to have it. There is a small paragraph not too far in where Joan describes her mother’s beautiful Saxon blond hair. She said it spilled over the blanket like rich cream. (Not word-for-word, but close.) I don’t know why, but that phrase stuck with me, along with many other superbly written descriptions.

Joan is born to a German canon father and a Saxon mother, whose incompatibilities blare from the page within the first scene, along with her father’s intense sexism, something we learn is not uncommon for the time. And that time is, none other than the Dark Ages. And if “dark” stands for evil cynicism, than that would be an apt description as portrayed by this novel. We follow Joan in her growth from a little girl to an impressionable teenager to an “older” woman (by the Dark’s standards). She shows a keen interest and talent for learning early in her life, but unfortunately, learning is not a woman’s activity at that time. As fate would have it, Joan unexpectedly gets her chance to break free of societal constraints—by taking on the identity of a man. Because of her complex intelligence and progressive thought, Joan soon finds herself in the highest position she could aspire to, and she finds that taking on that responsibility will be her greatest joy as well as her most grievous pain. +/-

I enjoyed almost every moment in this novel. It was cruel and unfair, and in some parts gruesome (all characteristics of the lovely Dark Ages), but I still found so many redeeming qualities of this unbelievable story. Although based on a legend, I find the thought that such a woman could have lived to be an inviting concept. One that I want to believe in.

The author did a beautiful job of weaving together the elements of Joan’s life in a way that was both entertaining and meaningful. There was so much research that went into this novel, and that fact shines through so convincingly. At moments where with some other historical fiction authors I would have been rolling my eyes and wondering which was fact and which fiction, I was instead completely drawn in and not even having to try to suspend my disbelief.

As Joan grows in wisdom and begins to see her destiny shaping in front of her, she meets with some tough choices, and quite honestly, some of those choices are not far from many that women make today. Joan was wedged between two very different worlds, each pulling her in a different direction. She had to make sacrifices that were heavy to carry: she was stuck between her sense of duty and her heart’s secret longings. And for some reason, these two had to sit as separate weights in the balance. It’s a tough thing, I think, to prioritize sometimes. One of those sides had to consume the other; there was no other alternative for her. Most often, I think that’s a tragedy. A woman should not have to choose between passions—a person should not have to choose between them.

This book brings up a lot of interesting issues, the most prominent of course is that endlessly battled question: What is the right place for a woman in society? The thing I liked about Cross’s book is that she doesn’t try to answer this question, really. At least, I didn’t think so. Instead, she puts it out there, and uses Joan as an example. And then she asks, “So what about that?” And I don’t think she expects our reaction to be black or white, but instead some version of grey. Perhaps a different shade for every woman who has lived. =) At least, I think that’s a very comforting thought.

Overall, I really liked this book. I'm not sure it's one I would recommend for everyone, but I think it's a significant piece of historical fiction, in its own right.

*As a side note: Donna Cross has offered to do phone conferences with any book groups who’d like to. All you have to do is go to her website and fill out a form to get a time set up! And then she will contact you. Our book group is online, so we worked out a way for our members to chat with her online! It was a wonderful experience, and if your book group reads this book, I highly recommend doing it! It was a big hit.

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