Friday, September 18, 2009

Book Review -- Pope Joan

Pope Joan: A Novel Pope Joan: A Novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross


My rating: 3 of 5 stars








Legend, myth, truth?

Such is the mystery surrounding Joan of Ingleheim – who later became known a Pope John VIII.

Novelist, Donna Woolfolk Cross, tries to give life and breath to Joan, a young girl in the 9th century, who with an eagerness for learning, is prohibited from doing so simply because she is a girl. With the help of an older sibling and a willing tutor, Joan begins a life of intellect as she manages to find her way through a “schola” (what I would consider a 9th century boarding school for boys, where she has been reluctantly accepted) and finally, Fulda, a Catholic seminary (where she gains entrance because she disguises herself as a boy).

Through her studies at Fulda, she also becomes a learned “healer,” a person with a keen knowledge of herbs and plants that she uses skillfully to diagnose and treat the sick. With that knowledge, she makes her way to Rome, where she is called upon to serve the ailing Pope Sergius. Once in the “court” of the Pope, she becomes respected and revered. After the death of Sergius, she eventually finds herself elected Pope.

Cross, an academic, historian and scholar, has been given a “gem” of a subject to write about. One who is free from any other known popular fiction or non-fiction baggage. She has certainly done extraordinary research in trying to detail the panorama of 9th century political and religious life. With that, I was expecting to be “wow’d” by this book, energized, uplifted, educated – but I wasn’t.

For the most part, I felt like I was reading this book in a closet. It was shadowy and oppressive and suffocating. Not to mention brutal. I suppose that’s why they call this time period the “Dark Ages.” The author explains in her epilogue that she spared the reader -- that the 9th century was much more ruthless than she portrayed. For that, I thank her. Joan was routinely beaten by her father as child, almost till death, for her covert learning efforts. Later, during a Norse invasion, a friend of Joan’s in gang raped. I’m sure this is a historically accurate portrayal of the time period, but it didn’t make it any easier to read.

Joan herself could have been so much more. Or I expected so much more. I never really connected with her. Although she overcomes begin beaten, sent away from home, humiliation, her sacrifice of identity, to become an intellect, respected and ultimately, the supreme religious leader of the time, I never found myself “cheering” for her or caring, one way or the other. I did like her ability to take on her leaders and debate them. One particular episode finds her discussing the proposed inferiority of women to men with her teacher Odo. The best line in the whole book is Joan’s retort to Odo, “As for will, woman should be considered superior to man…for Eve ate of the apple for love of knowledge and learning, but Adam ate of it merely because he was asked.” You go girl! That’s the Joan I wanted to see throughout the whole book.

And the story itself was marred with these last minute heroics, or “saved by the skin of her teeth” clich├ęs, that by the end, you began to wonder what other “rabbit” was going to pop out of a hat to save Joan: being saved from an arranged marriage by barbaric Norsemen; her father dying of stroke-like symptoms right before he “outs” her as a woman; finding a boat to take her away from Fulda when she is once again nearly “outed” after becoming deathly ill; and finally, saved by an intact building during a flood where she revives her “soul mate” with her body heat. Enough said.

I admit, I rushed through the end of this book because Dan Brown’s "The Lost Symbol," is sitting on my bed side table. And whether or not there was a Joan, I’m not convinced. But it made me wonder – think of what Dan Brown did to the mystery of Mary Magdalene, I wonder what a Dan Brown version of Pope Joan would look like?? Now that’s a book I would love to read!

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