by Donna Woolfolk Cross
Although denied for centuries by the Church and some scholars, Donna Woolfolk Cross, has written a convincing fictional account of a ninth-century woman Pope. Her notes concluding the novel outline her credible sources for why she believes Joan did in fact exist. Her choice to write fiction was based on there not being enough known about Joan to write an extensive biography. Nevertheless, she makes a good case for her existence in a time when few records were kept and very little is known about the time period. Joan’s story comes to us through persistent legend and uncanny Church practices.
The novel plunks the reader down in a foreign age where women are not only second-class inferiors but brutally treated. Possessed of an inquisitive mind, Joan immediately resents living in a household where her brothers are educated to rise in the Church and she is left to menial housework. Her only eventual task is to marry as well as she can. Opportunity comes when her brother dies during a Viking raid, and she seizes the chance to disguise herself as a man and enter monastic life. Once established, she excels as a scholar and healer. Turbulent times eventually lead Joan to Rome and all the way to the papacy.
Cross’ book roughly follows the legends that have come down about Joan. The tale is well-written and engaging. Modern audiences can well imagine the motivations of someone who wants more for themselves and acts to defy convention and take advantage of opportunities as they come along. The story is a triumph of the human spirit striving for expression while the darker forces of others are at work here as well.
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